Governor says state working to get tourism economy going again

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Just a few days after local tourism business and marketing leaders hosted a news conference to talk about St. Johns County being back in business after dealing with Hurricane Matthew, the governor came to town Monday to hammer home the message again.

Gov. Rick Scott appeared at the Castillo de San Marcos to remind everyone how important tourism is to Florida. He had a captive audience at St. Augustine’s bayfront, an area dedicated to tourism and hospitality.

“We’re here for one reason: We love tourists. They create a lot of jobs,” Scott said.

Scott praised local businesses for getting back to work so quickly.

“We have people hurting but we’re open for business,” Scott said. “We have [more than] 250 tourist-related businesses right here that are reopened. And they’re ready to have tourists come back.”

While criticizing President Obama and the Federal Emergency Management Agency for not getting assistance to citizens quickly, Scott praised local and state officials for their response to the hurricane.

“We have people who lost their homes. We have people with a lot of damage,” Scott said. “For all of those who are trying to get their lives back to normal, I’m going to continue at the state level to do everything we can to get your life back to normal.”

Part of the reason for having another news conference about tourism in St. Augustine is because of how it affects almost every part of the economy, especially in coastal areas like St. Augustine.

There is still a worry that potential visitors have seen the dramatic images of flooding in downtown St. Augustine and think many of the popular attractions, hotels and restaurants are all gone or shut for repairs. While there has been some obvious damage, the city overall has not been decimated.

Will Seccombe, the president and CEO of Visit Florida, told those in attendance to share the message with friends on social media that St. Augustine, St. Augustine Beach and Florida in general are fully prepared to accept visitors.

“We have to counteract the really dramatic images that were all over the news about St. Augustine last week, and the only way we’re going to do that is with providing imagery of this incredible destination,” he said.

State Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, who attended Monday’s event, said she understands that it’s hard for some people to think about tourism already because so many residents are still dealing with personal loss.

“It is a hard message because so much of the city and especially our tourism areas are ready to go,” she said. “This storm has devastated some of our residential areas and some places where we had our secondary tourist corridors. Some of those are open and some are not. But the main core of St. Augustine and historic St. Johns County is open for business, and we need to get people back there.”

Among those business owners busy cleaning up the physical damage as well rebuilding an audience is Philip McDaniel, CEO and co-founder of the St. Augustine Distillery. He said his business was able to reopen on Thursday for tours and to restart production on Friday.

While excited to get back to work, he said the business was down about 50 percent over the weekend compared to a typical one. He said the hurricane will ultimately lead to a reduction of $75,000-$100,000 in revenue or lost production opportunity.

“The great news is our team came together; the community was awesome,” he said. “We’re open now. The main thing we have to do now is get visitors here.

“Tourism is our No. 1 industry. I’ve got 31 people who rely on me every week to write payroll, and if my guests don’t come, I can’t write their checks. It’s that simple.”

The same issues of how to get business back at full strength so that the many employees in the industry — estimated at 29,000 in the county — can continue to earn a reliable income was also addressed at the Tourist Development Council meeting later Monday.

The St. Johns County TDC is a board that determines the use of “bed tax” dollars charged to those purchasing short-term accommodations. Most of the money is used for marketing the destination. So the TDC mission is squarely focused on the same mission Scott talked about in the morning: encouraging people to visit again.

TDC member Irving Kass, who runs the St. George Inn in St. Augustine, said hoteliers like him need customers so they can keep county citizens employed. Shuttered businesses have consequences at all levels of the local economy, and Kass said he’s seen them first-hand.

So far, he’s been able to keep his employees at 40 hours per week, but that is not the case everywhere.

“As long as business comes back, I can afford to keep everything going for a while,” Kass said. “But there’s going to be a point where that’s going to run out. Other people I know have laid everyone off, and there are places where all employees are not making any money.

“So not only do they have huge damage, but they’re not going to collect any money. That makes me very concerned as a leader.”