That includes having the Kissimmee Convention and Visitors Bureau spent some of the tourist tax dollars it collects to help promote the vacation home industry, Owen said.
“We need to reassess where we’re spending that money,” he said. “We need to celebrate the tourism industry.”
“I’ve watched the county change from the cow county of the world to certainly the tourism capital of the world,” Harford said. “It certainly shows you’re a major part of the industry.”
Harford, a Democrat who is seeking a second term as Osceola’s District 1 commissioner, and Owen, a Republican and former commissioner, are seeing a rematch this year. Owen previously served as an Osceola County commissioner from 2000 until November 2008, when he was defeated by Harford.
The two candidates met in a debate on Thursday during the monthly meeting of the Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, the trade group that represents property managers who operate vacation homes. Those are fully furnished houses rented out on a short term basis to tourists, and it’s a particularly fast growing industry in Polk and Osceola counties.
The meeting was held at Sleuth’s Mystery Dinner Theatre on International Drive.
But a lot of the association’s members feel like Osceola County has either ignored the industry altogether, or looked down on it as an unwelcome addition to the local economy, said Nigel Worrell, who operates Florida Leisure Vacation Homes in Osceola County, and who served as the moderator of the debate.
In the minds of some vacation home property managers, “The county commission has raped us and left us with unwanted children,” he said.
In fact, neither Harford nor Owen initially denied that Osceola’s political leaders were not only slow to embrace this industry, but previously had some negative impressions about it.
Owen said the county used to be skeptical that it could build a strong employment base through a tourism-oriented economy, including hospitality jobs like the ones offered by the vacation home industry.
“The perception was that they were low paying jobs and we needed to build the economy up,” he said. A lot of those attitudes have changed, he said, as commissioners see the way the tourism industry remains healthy and is still creating new jobs.
“That should be our focus going forward, to build up the tourism industry and celebrate it,” Owen said.
Harford said the vacation home industry also had problems initially with the way it billed itself.
“I got the connotation that the term ‘short term rental’ was a negative in the county,” Harford said, and likewise the vacation home industry was viewed as an unwelcome competitor to the county’s existing hotel industry.
Harford agreed that commissioners no longer view it that way.
“The county should focus more on vacation rentals,” he said.
David Leather, the past president of the CFVRMA, noted that Polk County routinely provides this industry with tourist tax dollar collection figures showing the considerable impact that the vacation home industry has on Polk County’s hospitality industry.
“The last economic study on vacation homes in Osceola County was done in 2008 and showed we have a $1.7 billion impact and have supported 20,000 jobs,” Leather said. “Is is time to do another study?”
Worrell noted that the CFVRMA held its first meeting in 1997, and “We’ve come a long way in that time. Back in 1997, nobody knew this industry and nobody seemed to care less about vacation rentals, and in some ways we were seen as enemies, in competition with the hotels and motels. Now we’re seen as propping up the entire industry.”
Part of that, Harford said, is the county’s new embrace of tourism as an economic engine, and its desire to advance the industry even more, by working to revitalize the tourism corridor along U.S. 192 and promote the county’s rural areas as well.
“We’ve been on the doorstop of Disney, but I don’t want us to be the doormat,” Harford said. “We’re starting to attract more naturalists and birders. The natural beauty that is still in Florida cannot be duplicated in the theme parks.”
Promoting all that Osceola County has – including vacation homes – is a key goal going forward, Harford said.
“Disney has changed their product,” he said. “My goal was to make sure Osceola County changed its product as well.”
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