Local counties keeping Highway 231 Welcome Center open

JACKSON COUNTY, Fla. (CAPITOL NEWS SERVICE) - VisitFlorida, the state’s primary tourism marketing arm, begins the new budget year with $26 million less in funding. It came after a bitter fight to kill the agency.

VisitFlorida, the state’s primary tourism marketing arm, begins the new budget year with $26 million less in funding. One casualty of the cut was the closing of a rural welcome center on the state line in the Panhandle. (VisitFlorida)

One casualty of the cut was the closing of a rural welcome center on the state line in the Panhandle.

300,000 vehicles a year cross the Alabama-Florida state line on Highway 231 in Jackson County. The welcome center there is the least visited in the state. That’s why the agency put the center on the chopping block.

It was set to have closed Sunday night.

“We’ll be assuming operations of this welcome center,” said Jennifer Adams with the Northwest Florida Tourism Council.

Keeping the center open will cost the eight rural counties at least $500,000 a year.

They worried that the major tourist destinations in the south would lose business if the center closed.

“Many travelers come in and not knowing where they are going to end up. If we can capture them and direct them to any of the eight counties in Northwest Florida. That certainly is the vision,” said Adams.

At the heart of the budget cuts was a feud between the agency and the House Speak, Jose Oliva, who has called the agency useless.

The $26 million cut was a compromise to keep VisitFlorida running for another year, but it begs the question: Do the counties taping up to run the welcome center prove that VisitFlorida isn’t needed?

“No, we are not proving to the Speaker of the House that VisitFlorida isn’t needed,” said Dan Rowe, President and CEO of Visit Panama City Beach. "We’re showing that the tourism industry is very resilient and we are working together to tell our story.”

The local funding means six employees working at the center will get to keep their jobs, but if the Speaker of the House has his way, every other center along the state line could be fair game to close a year from now, unless locals step in.

VisitFlorida only got a reprieve from lawmakers after the Governor stepped in and asked for another year so he could see firsthand if the agency provides any value.

We reached out to the Speaker of the House’s office seeking a response to the counties' action, but have not heard back.