Hands Across the Border

In this Floridan file photo, Maj. Eddie Johnson with the Florida Highway Patrol addresses the annual Hands Across the Border gathering of law enforcement officers from Florida, Georgia and Alabama Tuesday at the Florida Welcome Center on U.S. 231. MARK SKINNER/FLORIDAN FILE

In a last-hour rescue, Jackson Commissioners joined a multi-entity effort that will keep the U.S. 231 Florida Welcome Center open in the wake of Visit Florida’s decision to close it due to funding cuts. It was slated to close its doors on Sunday, June 30.

Visit Florida, which managed the facility, had significant funding cuts for fiscal year 2019-20. Its budget went from $76 million to $50 million, and the closing of the welcome center was pending as of Monday to help account for the shortfall. The organization had determined that it was the least-used of Florida’s welcome centers, most of which are located on interstates.

Jackson County will employ the welcome center staff until Northwest Florida Tourism Council can take them over in a contract with an employee leasing company in about 90 days. While they're under the county’s umbrella, the workers will be managed by the Jackson County Tourist Development Council and its executive director.

The money for their salaries will come temporarily from Jackson County’s “bed tax” dollars, which managed by the Jackson County Tourist Development Council. The dollars will be reimbursed by the NFTC once it can achieve its contract.

Jackson County TDC Executive Director Kristie Andreasen said the county’s big temporary investment will pay off in big ways by keeping open an important tourist gateway into the county. Roughly 300,000 visits are logged there every year, as people from all over the country and world enter Florida and stop in to pick up brochures, chat with staff and learn more about the state and all its assets, including those in Jackson County.

This will not ultimately cost Jackson County anything. The salary payments will be reimbursed by the Northwest Florida Tourism Council.

NFTC learned just before Memorial Day that the welcome center was set to close and has been working with Jackson County and other entities in an effort to have the regional entity take it over rather than see it close.

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