One of those lawmakers, though, may stand out above the crowd. Mike Horner got his start as president of the Kissimmee-Osceola County Chamber of Commerce and knows the tourism industry quite well, Maladecki said.
“Mike Horner has been a wonderful friend of hospitality,” Maladecki said. “In Tallahassee, he’s considered a hospitality guru.”
Horner was honored by the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association on Feb. 25 when the association hosted its annual Smith Travel Research Luncheon at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress in Orlando. Horner, a Republican from House District 79 who represents parts of Kissimmee, St. Cloud, Poinciana and the region’s tourist corridor, was presented with the 2010 CFHLA Public Servant of the Year Award, given to an elected leader who has demonstrated dedicated service to the region’s tourism and hospitality industry.
Horner, who was first elected to the Legislature in 2008, said he appreciates the recognition and Maladecki’s praise. He said fighting for the concerns of Central Florida’s tourism industry is one of his top priorities – in no small measure because it remains one of the healthiest sectors of the regional economy right now, producing one in every four local jobs.
“For my district, the hospitality industry is the primary employer,” Horner said. “We recognize our need to diversify our economy in the state, and right now our number one industry is the tourism industry, and we need to look after that.”
During the past decade, Florida experienced a building boom as the state’s population increased, making Florida one of the fastest growing states in the nation. Developers snatched up vacant land across Central Florida and built new residential subdivisions at a rapid pace to keep up with demand for new homes.
But when the housing market crashed in 2008, it left behind a skyrocketing number of empty, unsold homes, and home prices plummeted as the foreclosure rate soared. The collapse of the housing market dragged down a whole host of once-thriving fields, including real estate, the home construction industry, and building suppliers.
Several fields have been able to rebound since the recession ended, including health care and tourism. Last year, Greater Orlando attracted more than 50 million visitors, Maladecki said, breaking records.
Tourism, Horner said, has been the bedrock that Central Florida’s economy needs to start building up from.
“Everyone is focused on the fact that we need to diversify the economy,” Horner said of his Tallahassee colleagues. But in the meantime, the region needs a stable tourism industry to soften the blow of the national recession and the housing market’s continued woes, he added.
Although it sounds logical that most lawmakers would want to see a healthy tourism industry in a state that remains one of the top tourist destinations worldwide, the truth is that the hospitality industry’s issues can get complex, even controversial at times.
For the past few years, lawmakers representing popular tourism spots have tried to get increased funding for VISIT Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing agency, at a time when state revenues are down and lawmakers have been forced to make painful budget cuts. Sparing VISIT Florida from those budget cuts has been a top priority of lawmakers representing tourist-friendly regions.
The vacation home industry, which is prominent in Osceola and Polk counties, has its own unique concerns. The industry is made up of vacation homes rented to tourists and business travelers on a short term basis, who want a house with multiple bedrooms, a fully furnished kitchen and a private pool to stay in, rather than a hotel room. Last year, the state was prepared to enforce new regulations requiring property managers to install sprinkler systems in every home – at a cost of $20,000 each. The industry’s trade group, the Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, turned to Horner, who was able to convince state lawmakers to exempt the industry from this costly regulation.
He also also instrumental in passage of the Pizza Flyer bill, also known as the Tourist Safety Act, which targeted organized crime rings that prey on tourists by hiring young people to distribute fake flyers for pizza deliveries at local hotels and vacation homes. The phone numbers on those flyers are fake, and used to get unsuspecting tourists’ credit card numbers. This bill has been a top concern for the hospitality industry.
Horner said his goal has been to educate fellow lawmakers about these often complicated issues.
“Everybody has a role and everybody has their own interests,” he said. “It’s not a solo list. When we did the Tourist Safety Act, we worked with Sen. Thad Altman and Rep. Greg Evers.”
Altman represents the Space Coast, while Evers’ district covers parts of the Panhandle, Horner noted – two critical tourism areas.
“It’s all a team effort, “ Horner said. “I don’t want to say folks don’t value tourism, but as individual legislators, you only have so much bandwith.”
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