Florida’s Emerald Coast tourism agency overhauled amid criminal investigations
FT. WALTON BEACH, FLA–State and federal authorities are investigating the alleged criminal misuse of BP oil spill funds and bed taxes by Northwest Florida’s Okaloosa County Tourism Development Council. The probe has prompted county officials to make big changes to the way tourism promotion funds are handled in the future.
Okaloosa County is home to the resort cities of Destin and Fort Walton Beach and miles of famous white-sand beaches that make up Florida’s Emerald Coast. Hotels, restaurants, charter fishing operators, retail outlets, entertainment venues, and other businesses in Okaloosa County that rely on tourism revenues took a big hit when BP’s Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank 200 miles southwest in the Gulf of Mexico.
In 2010, BP injected cash for promotional use into several Florida tourism agencies to help them combat negative perceptions about the oil spill’s impact on their beaches.
According to the Associated Press, an attorney advising the Okaloosa County Commission advised commissioners to begin implementing changes immediately and not wait until state auditors, the sheriff’s department, and the FBI finish their investigations.
“The move came less than two weeks after the county’s former tourism director died of an apparent suicide,” the AP reported, adding that “Investigators had unearthed more than $1.4 million in questionable spending on his home and a yacht.”
From now on, all spending over $25,000 by the Tourism Development Council must be approved by the county administrator or county commission. Any contracts the agency enters must conform to the same rules followed by other county departments, which include detailing the purpose of expenditures and requiring authorization at various levels. For some reason, Okaloosa’s Tourism Development Council never had these safeguards in place.
Greg Donovan, the county’s new interim tourism director, told the AP that the Tourism Development Council he stepped into is a “jigsaw puzzle” and that cooperating with all law enforcement officials is “paramount” to the agency right now. But he also added that Okaloosa County could not afford to let up on its aggressive marketing campaigns.
“There are thousands of communities out there competing and if you live in Tennessee and you are out there making that decision of where you are going to vacation and this location falls off the map for a year or two because of our lack of promotional capability, it will hurt us,” he told the AP.
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