CRESTVIEW — Each year, more than 300,000 visitors drive by the Florida welcome center on U.S. 231 in Jackson County.
On another note about the center, 27% of 15,130 visitor guides distributed there for the five-county area from Escambia to Bay counties were for Okaloosa County’s Emerald Coast guide, Okaloosa County Tourist Development Department Director Jennifer Adams told the County Commission Tuesday.
That’s when the commission unanimously approved spending up to $50,000 in county bed-tax money to help pay the cost of operating the welcome center from July 1 through Sept. 30. Commissioner Graham Fountain was absent from the meeting.
Because of reduced funding for VisitFlorida, which is the state’s tourism marketing arm, the seven Gulf counties that comprise Florida’s Coastal Northwest Communications Council agreed to assume operation of the center instead of letting it close. The center is north of Interstate 10 in Jackson County.
VisitFlorida had a $26 million decrease to its budget this year, Adams told the commission. She said the up to $50,000 in Okaloosa County funding to help keep the welcome center open through September will be money well spent on exposing visitors to the Emerald Coast.
That allocation will join money from other partnering counties, including Bay and Escambia, to keep the center open through September. The total cost is being finalized, Adams said after the meeting.
She plans to bring back to the commission the cost of operating the center from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, 2020. With the board's approval, Okaloosa’s up to $50,000 allocation for the July-through-September 2019 time-frame would be applied toward its possible, estimated $117,546 contribution to keep the center open through September of next year.
Preliminary, proposed and long-term welcome center funding allocations are based on proportionate bed-tax collections of the partnering counties. The center will be known as the Northwest Florida Welcome Center, Adams said.
“The overall decision to keep it open was the feeling that it was beneficial to the overall region,” she said.