FILE - Florida tourism

(The Center Square) – Florida allocates $50 million a year to support its private-public marketing agency, VISIT FLORIDA, garnering a $3.27 return on every $1 spent to promote the state’s $90 billion tourism industry.

Although Republicans in the Florida Legislature routinely attempt to disband the agency, its return-on-investment is not lost on business leaders as a model to broadcast other aspects of the Sunshine State that merit promotion, such as its business friendly climate and growth.

Florida businesses “would welcome strong and focused messaging,” Florida Power & Light Senior Director for Economic Development Crystal Stiles said during Thursday’s Florida Chamber of Commerce’s 2021 Economic Outlook & Jobs Solution Summit.

The three-hour virtual forum featured 15 speakers and panel discussions, such as the one Stiles participated in with Enterprise Florida President and CEO Jamal Sowell and Duke Energy Florida Director of Economic Development Marc Hoenstine.

Stiles suggested business marketing campaigns in her response to the question, “What can government do for you?”

Referring to benefits Florida’s tourism industry receives from VISIT FLORIDA, Stiles said, “Let’s think about marketing the state of Florida for its business friendly climate so we wouldn’t be starting from zero (when recruiting businesses to the state) – they’ve already heard.”

Florida Chamber CEO Mark Wilson opened the summit by outlining the Chamber’s Florida 2030 Blueprint, which charts how the state’s $1.11 trillion economy can rise from the world’s 17th largest to 10th largest by 2030.

“That would make us bigger than Mexico,” he said before warning of challenges ahead.

“Free enterprise isn’t free,” Wilson said. “There are a lot of forces working against us, want us to be more than like New York, California and Illinois.”

Tort reform and adopting an e-fairness bill are among the chamber’s 2021 legislative priorities, Wilson said, with COVID-19 liability protections for businesses its paramount concern.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis vowed to continue lobbying lawmakers to adopt House Bill 7, filed by Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, and its Senate companion, Senate Bill 72, introduced by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

The bills extend COVID-19 protections to businesses, schools, nonprofits and religious institutions who make a “good-faith effort” to follow government health guidelines.

Patronis said the state’s economy is rebounding with about half the jobs lost during the early stage of the pandemic retired and an estimated budget shortfall initially projected to top $5 billion over two years now estimated to be about half that.

“Our state, our citizens, our businesses are resilient. These signs are positive, but we must not let our foot off the gas. That’s why I’m fighting this year for COVID liability protection,” he said.

Passing HB 7/SB 72 would mean higher revenues for businesses, more jobs for Floridians and more sales tax and fee revenues into state coffers, allowing lawmakers to keep taxes low, Patronis said

“We don’t want our small businesses to fall to unscrupulous lawyers, activist judges, who allow a suit and settlement environment to develop for businesses that are following CDC guidelines, observing social distancing, doing everything they can to protect their employees and the customers,” Patronis said. “They shouldn’t have to fear frivolous lawsuits. We will continue to work to ensure these safeguards are enacted to help Florida businesses recover.”

Stiles and others said it was critical to keep meeting and discussing the chamber’s 2030 blueprint.

“Economic development is really about problem-solving,” she said. “Workforce, infrastructure – getting it all on the table is critical. Companies want certainty, a competitive business climate. It is really powerful when we sit down at the table together and work these partnerships. Our job is to block and tackle and remove barriers.”