CHIPLEY - A $26 million budget cut to Florida's tourism arm sent a blow to the region, nearly closing a visitor center that feeds tourism to Washington County.
However, with the support of tourism agencies throughout the Emerald Coast, including that of the Washington County Tourism Development Council, the 231 Welcome Center is remaining open.
"I think this is a great example of how our region is pulling together," said TDC Director Heather Lopez. "We're all pulling together regionally to keep this center, to help keep our tourism economies going. We're all very dedicated."
On July 1, representatives from several tourist agencies in the Panhandle celebrated the announcement during a press conference held at the 231 Welcome Center in Bay County.
"There are a lot of folks that come through the welcome center who may know where they’re going but don’t necessarily know what they’re going to do and this allows them to be inspired, to get out into the small businesses that make up the tourism industry across Northwest Florida," The News Herald reported Visit Panama City Beach President and CEO Dan Rowe stated at the press conference. "If this center had closed yesterday, it would have been a great disservice to the traveling public."
The Northwest Florida Tourism Council will use Triumph funds from the Deep Horizon Oil Spill to keep it open for a 30-day period. And Jackson County commissioners voted to approve hiring the six Welcome Center employees for the next 90 days, to which they will be reimbursed by the NWFL Tourism Council.
At last week's TDC meeting, Washington County TDC member and mayor of Chipley Tracy Andrews called the budget cut and threat of the closing of the welcome center "very sad," and council member Ted Everett chimed in as well, saying the situation was "ridiculous."
With the center remaining open until Oct. 1 through regional efforts, officials will use the time to plan for a more permanent decision on how to keep it open for the long term, Lopez said.
"That center services our region," Lopez said. "Their employees are well versed in the tourism opportunities in our region and encourage people to stay longer and explore more when they come through there."
The local TDC actively uses the center to distribute visitor guides and other tourism materials to visitors throughout the year.
"It's vital for us to have that center open and operating for us to be able to capture some of that business that is traveling through the coast," she added.