A new tourism development organization called Visit Pensacola was approved by the Escambia County Commission on Tuesday September 24th to manage funding generated by visitors that stay in Pensacola or Escambia County. However, in a motion made by County Commission Chairman, Gene Valentino, he stated, “We the County Commission take tourism out of the Chamber of Commerce. We allow Visit Pensacola to retain their own attorney that will allow them the time necessary to address all legal and ethical concerns before December 5th. By December 5th, at the latest, the County will transfer tourism to this new entity. Between now and the transfer date, tourism will remain as is the status quo (with the Pensacola Chamber) with the appropriate budget.”
The Visit Pensacola’s mission is to develop, administer, and promote tourism through the provision of events, activities, products, and services that increase the number of overnight guests. Those overnight guests pay a four (4) cents tax on hotel, condominium, or bed and breakfast rooms that this year has generated an estimated $8 million.
A group called the Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) led the transfer of power from the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber by organizing a lobbying and relationship building campaign led by Ron Ellington who works with Innisfree Hotels (Pensacola Beach Hilton & Pensacola Airport Hyatt) owned by Julian McQueen. A strategic factor in the new Visit Pensacola approach was proposing new categories or classes of board members, which for the first time included a minority non-profit seat. However, the minority seat was the only seat that would be designated as an at-large seat and come up for a new member to be elected in its category every two years which could result in creating a period of two years with no minority representation.
The local African-American Chamber of Commerce and the African-American Heritage Society began researching this surprise offer and began seeking an understanding as to why only the minority seat would be described as at-large. The response provided was that all the other members were recipients of Tourist Development Tax (TDT) dollars and the minority non-profit would not have a member collecting the tax. For example, the other Visit Pensacola board seats included the hotel owners of DMO, ACE which is a cultural and arts organization, a local sports promotion entity called the Pensacola Sports Association, the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber, the Perdido Chamber, the City of Pensacola, and Escambia County government.
On Monday, September 16th, several African-American speakers complained about the minority seat being an at-large position and advocated that the African American Chamber of Commerce be selected to serve in a permanent seat with the other chambers of commerce and that there should be a second permanent seat for the African American Heritage Society to serve in a category with the Arts, Culture, and Entertainment (ACE) Organization. There seemed to be a consensus that there should be a delay in the decision to approve the transfer so that a more inclusionary and a more fair governance structure could be designed and approved.
Commissioner Lumon May made the motion to delay until September 24th because of his very strong concern (along with that of several speakers) about permanent minority representation. He, also, voiced that there were too many issues to address since he had received the new organization’s by-laws just minutes before the meeting. Commissioner Valentino made an angry comment about the nerve of the hotel group coming in at the last minute and asking for millions of dollars. Commissioner Barry added that he also thought things were moving too fast and seconded Commissioner Lumon May’s motion to delay!!! The vote was 3 to 2 and the stage was set for a decision on board membership at the 24th of September county commission meeting.
At last Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, local history was made as the commissioners voted 5-0 to approve the Visit Florida updated board membership with a permanent minority community seat (called the Minority Class) and delayed the transfer of control of the $8 million tourism fund till December 5th. Commissioner May called it a victory for minority inclusion.