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Columbia County Observer

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DEO Funds Hole-In-the-Map Tourism: 192,500 Maps Leave Out N. Central FL's Iconic Counties 

Posted January 28, 2015  10:05 am

The Department of Economic Opportunity funded the brochure which left out a third of the region and is responsible for generating at least $30,000,000 of tourism revenue.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Last Thursday's North Central Florida Regional Planning Council meeting featured the Planning Council's Tourism Task Force showing off its new North FL tourism map. Tourism is Florida's number one industry and the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) funded the printing of 192,500 maps featuring places to visit everywhere in N. Central FL, except the three counties in the Suwannee River Valley, which includes the world famous Ichetucknee Springs and Bradford County to the east. An inquiry to DEO gave up nothing but bureaucratic double speak.

No One at DEO Takes Responsibility

It cost DEO $17,000 to print the 192,500 maps which left out Columbia, Hamilton, Suwannee, the three counties in the Suwannee River Valley, and Bradford County. The counties are all members of the North FL Regional Planning Council. It would have cost DEO the same amount to include them on the map.

Columbia County is widely recognized as the Gateway to Florida because of its proximity to I-10, I-75, Georgia and Atlanta.

Yesterday morning at approximately 10am, Tuesday, your reporter spoke with a Carter Mack in the media department of DEO and asked who at DEO approved the maps which "omitted the three counties in the heart of the Suwannee River Valley and home of the world famous Ichetucknee Springs, which attracts visitors from all over the world?"

Your reporter explained to Mr. Mack that the North Central Florida Regional Planning Council (NCFRPC) was in charge of the project and followed up the conversation with an email attaching the Hole-In-the Map.

Later in the day, your reporter made a follow-up phone call to Mr. Mack, which led nowhere. "I'm still working on it," he said.

Your reporter gave DEO's Mack the name of Connie Norman with DEO and her phone number. These were obtained from the Executive Director of the NCFRPC, Scott Koons.

The Observer never heard from DEO's Norman, but finally did hear back from Mr. Mack via email at 4:51pm.

Mr. Mack wrote in part, "The map to which you are referring is most likely a regional marketing brochure made possible by a DEO grant to The Original Florida Tourism Task Force..." His instructions were to "contact the North Central Regional Planning Council."

The North Central Florida Regional Planning Council

Because of its central location with its proximity to local highways and the interstates the NCFRPC holds its monthly meetings in Columbia County's Lake City.

Last Thursday night the Planning Council's Executive Director, Scott Koons, introduced the Council's new travel brochure which conspicuously left out Columbia County, as well as Hamilton, Suwannee and Bradford to the east.

Visit Natural North Florida Taskforce: This is part of the NCFRPC
Original Florida Tourism Taskforce: This is part of the NCFRPC; the same as Visit Natural North Florida Taskforce
Visit Florida: State Wide public/private partnership

Director Koons explained that NCFRPC staff member Steve Dopp has been the staff assigned to the Council's Visit Natural North Florida Taskforce, which appears to also go by the name of the Original Florida Tourism Taskforce.

According to Director Koons, The Hole-In-the-Map brochure "will be distributed throughout motels up and down I 75, throughout Georgia and throughout North and Central Florida. It will also be distributed at the Florida welcome centers on I-95, I-75, I-10 and US 231."

Scott Koons: File Photo

Director Koons told the Planning Council that the Taskforce, "Just forged a significant partnership with Visit Florida. Visit Florida is the statewide public/private partnership that’s charged with marketing northern Florida for tourism... They are partnering with the Taskforce to the tune of $100,000 to attend trade shows both nationally and internationally this year and hopefully for the next two years to promote the rural part of Florida for tourism on a national and international basis."

He continued, "They’ve already attended one in Atlanta. They're in New York City this week. They will also be in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Madison Wisconsin and Berlin [Germany].

It cost the Planning Council (or the Taskforce), approximately $200 to partner with Visit Florida. That investment nets the Council $2,500 or $5,000 grants from Visit Florida. "They usually get one or two a year," according to Director Koons.

This year, the $200 investment also netted from Visit Florida a $100,000 grant to the Council-Taskforce to market the region, minus the three Suwannee River Valley Counties and Bradford.

Director Koons explained the tourism funding stream to the Planning Council:

35k from counties and some reserve funds they have which are now able to use that leverage and match a grant from the Department of Economic Opportunity, which in the past was limited to $35,000. This coming year they’ve just been approved for a matching grant of $150,000. So they’ve now gone from a budget this past year about 80 -- 90 -- $100,000 to a budget this coming year of $300,000. They are doing big things. One of the big things is they are going to completely revamp the website.

It appears from conversations both at the meeting and after the meeting, the Planning Council, funded by a grant from DEO, is planning to spend $75,000 to redo the Taskforce website.

Columbia County contracted with one of the southeast's premier tourism website designers to redo its Springs R Us website. The cost: $15,000.

This year the Planning Council-Taskforce has garnered about $300,000 in free money/grant funds. The cost for Columbia County to get in on the action is $8,000. The cost for Suwannee is $4,000 and Bradford County is $2,000.

The NCFRPC, like all the Planning Councils in Florida, floats on a sea of everyone else's money.

Yesterday afternoon your reporter asked Director Koons, "You are printing 192,000 maps. Nobody calls up Columbia County and says, 'Look, we’re printing these maps. We will be circulating them. You might want to revisit your association with Original North Florida.'"

Director Koons responded, "We don’t stop and say hey, we’re doing this project. Do you want to become part of this project? It’s always, do you want to become part of the marketing program for tourism for the region. We certainly have been in contact with them, soliciting and encouraging their participation over the last couple of years."

The Observer remarked, "Nobody remembers you guys doing anything. Everyone I’ve spoken to has a problem with Columbia County being left off the map, except for you."

Director Koons said, "The state paid for a map for the 10 counties that participate and collectively come together and want to market the region."

The Observer followed up, "Whether they came together or not, Columbia County is part of the Planning Council."

Director Koons responded, "It’s part of the Planning Council, but it is not part of the regional tourism program at the present time."

Columbia County Quit the Taskforce

According to Columbia County's legendary James Montgomery, former county commissioner and a gubernatorial member of the Planning Council, Columbia County quit the Taskforce because, according to the TDC (Tourist Development Council) Director at the time, Harvey Campbell, "Harvey was doing all the work."

Dale Williams: file photo

Columbia County's 31-year veteran County Manager, Dale Williams, told the Observer, "It seems to be what I remember. We were participating members. The Tourist Development Council started having issues because Harvey was spending an inordinate amount of his time at that effort as opposed to what they thought he should be doing on behalf of Columbia County. And I also think we were subsidizing it. There were some actual [Taskforce] expenses that we were paying."

County Manager Williams continued, "The TDC Board was getting on to Harvey telling him things weren’t getting done. Harvey was saying, well I’m spending my time doing this and that’s what led to withdrawal."

Columbia County's TDC's Director Weighs In

Your reporter asked, "The Suwannee River Valley Marketing Group [Columbia; Hamilton; Suwannee counties] left Natural North Florida [the Taskforce] as a group?"

Paula Vann: file photo

Paula Vann, Columbia County TDC Director answered, "That's correct. I was told from my very first day here that Harvey and Paulette [TDC marketing director] were doing everything and no one else would pick up the slack at Natural North Florida. I think the mind set was that if we were doing all this work then we should do it for us."

Ms. Vann continued, "I am investigating. I've talked to people that are members of that group to see what the benefit is and what we would gain if we did join. I am trying to figure out what the benefits are."

"You have to do a cost benefit analysis before you throw money at it. I will gather the facts; present them to my Board, which will then decide what to do and whether or not to make a proposal to the County Commission. As a business person, that's the only thing that makes sense."


During the Planning Council meeting, Director Koons said, "We are available to come and make a presentation to your County Commission to share with them the tremendous benefits of the very small investment that the counties can make."

No one that the Observer has spoken with, other than the Planning Council Director, thinks that DEO or the Planning Council-Taskforce should have produced a map with taxpayer money and left the Hole-In-the-Map.

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