TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov. Charlie Crist asked BP PLC on Wednesday to pay nearly $35 million for an emergency ad campaign to assure the world that Florida’s beaches and coastal waters are untainted by the company’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The spill off Louisiana so far has stayed well away from the Florida Panhandle shoreline but that hasn’t stopped thousands of wary tourists from canceling or declining to make reservations.
Crist earlier Wednesday promised the panel that oversees state tourism promotion he would help find money for efforts to counteract those fears.
“I’m there,” Crist told the Visit Florida Board of Directors. “You don’t have to twist my arm. I’m twisting theirs.”
Three hours later, Crist announced he had sent a letter to BP America president Lamar McKay seeking $24.75 million for an immediate national and international media campaign through July “to counter the impact of widespread negative imagery generated by the spill.” He asked for $10 million more for additional marketing by coastal counties through September.
A BP spokesman had no immediate comment.
“We need to advertise, get the message out that our beaches are clean, our water is clean, the fish are biting, please come to the Panhandle, it’s beautiful,” Crist said after appearing before the Visit Florida board.
Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association president Carol Dover, who also serves on the Visit Florida board, told the governor Panhandle occupancy rates usually are booked at 90 percent or more for the summer tourism season but that they’ve now dropped to less than 20 percent.
“They live and die by the next 90 days,” Dover said. “If we don’t do something like immediately – like by the end of the week or the first of next week – they’re going to die.”
The board has $2.5 million in state money it can use for the ad campaign, but officials said that’s not enough. Crist said BP as the “responsible party” should pay for it.
BP already has given Florida $25 million for spill-related expenses. Crist had said his legal staff was looking into the possibility of using some of that money for the ad campaign before he sent his new request to BP.
Usually in the weeks just before Memorial Day the phones at hotels and motels in the Panhandle are ringing off the hook with people booking summer vacations, Dover told the governor.
“My hoteliers and restaurateurs in the Panhandle literally hit the 911 button,” Dover said. “Literally, yesterday there were no calls.”
Crist later ordered the Department of Environmental Protection to loosen regulations so local governments can bring faster relief to communities that may be affected if the spill reaches their shores. He also asked the Small Business Administration to make low-interest loans available to fishermen, hotels and other businesses in 19 Gulf Coast counties if they should be affected.
Crist, who has severed his Republican ties to run for the U.S. Senate without party affiliation, also defended his plans for a special legislative session to put a drilling ban on the ballot. Some GOP lawmakers say it would be a waste of time and money because Florida law already prohibits drilling in state water.
House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, called Crist’s proposal “a political ploy to promote the future of politicians.”
“I think they’ll settle down once they hear from their constituents,” Crist said.
He also argued it would be more difficult to remove the drilling ban if it’s in the constitution. Legislation to lift the existing prohibition passed in the House last year but didn’t get a Senate vote. A similar bill was offered this year but was quickly tabled.
Crist said he also may ask lawmakers to pass legislation designed to promote the use of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and bio-mass as long as it doesn’t have “any detrimental impact on consumers.”
“We may or may not be able to do that, candidly,” Crist said, “but at least the ban ought to be something that shouldn’t be too hard a lift.”