PANAMA CITY BEACH, Florida — Sports towels and fleece blankets. A poker tournament. A $1 million Christmas display. A prom for senior citizens. BP gas card giveaways. A "most deserving mom" contest. And advertising, lots of advertising.
Florida Panhandle officials made the mix of eyebrow-raising purchases with $30 million BP gave them earlier this year to help tourism recover from 2010's disastrous Gulf oil spill.
The money allowed seven area tourism bureaus to try promotions they could never have afforded otherwise, and it has propelled the Panhandle's visitor counts to record numbers this year following a disastrous season right after the spill. The question now is what happens when the BP money dries up, most likely next April. The grants doubled and tripled the tourism-promotion budgets in these Panhandle counties, and officials worry the boost in visitors may prove fleeting.
"It is one thing to have your numbers go up when a tremendous amount of money is being put, not only in our economy, but in all of north Florida," said Curt Blair, executive director of the Franklin County Tourist Development Council. "We will see after April whether part of this was a real recovery ... or if we see fall-off. ... Whether we've done that or if we've just propped up the market."
BP announced the $30 million tourism grants in April. While the agreement for the $30 million doesn't prevent Florida from pursuing any claims against BP or others, officials there decided a week later not to join other Gulf states in a lawsuit against Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig at the heart of the spill.
Florida's tourism spending spree isn't the first time that BP money has allowed government officials to snag items from their wish lists.
Separately, BP had already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the four Gulf states in the months after the oil spill — with few strings attached. The Associated Press documented earlier this year how some of the $754 million given to local governments had been spent on tasers, SUVS and pick-up trucks, rock concerts, an iPad and other items with no direct connection to the oil spill.
In all, BP has given $150 million to Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi for tourism promotion since the oil spill, with the Sunshine State getting the lion's share — $62 million.
In the case of the more-recent payout, Florida Panhandle counties have allocated more than $23 million of the $30 million through September, with $13.5 million used on for television, digital, radio and print advertising. The counties have also spent millions on a variety of attention-grabbing gimmicks, The Associated Press found through public records requests and interviews.
Some wonder whether the most extravagant promotions — such as Panama City Beach's $1 million Christmas display — are worth it.
"It wasn't all that busy out here last weekend," Charles Walsingham, a beachside merchant near the display, said a few days after the Christmas lights were turned on and the ice rink opened in early December. "There weren't that many people over there skating and that is a lot of money to spend."
The seven counties spent $2.5 million on promotions alone.
In Pensacola, the BP money paid for $30,000 worth of sports towels and another $30,000 worth of fleece blankets given out at local sporting events. In neighboring Perdido Key, officials spent $300,000 on American Express gift cards for overnight visitors. They also purchased $12,500 worth of BP gas cards for tourists who present receipts showing they've stayed in the area, essentially putting BP funds back into the company's pocket.
Alison Davenport, chair of the Perdido Key Chamber and Visitors Center, said the goal is to get tourists driving to the area next spring. "We had no hesitation in choosing BP gas cards over any others since BP's grant money has made the incentivized travel promotion possible," she said.
Okaloosa County, home to Destin and Fort Walton Beach, is giving away a trip to the Super Bowl and tickets to the BCS championship football game to drive traffic to its Facebook page. South Walton Beach also is giving away BCS tickets on Facebook.
Okaloosa County spent a half million dollars marketing and advertising Vision Airlines, which this year launched service from the Northwest Florida Regional Airport to several Southeast cities.
The grants have funded a half-dozen fishing tournaments, a poker tournament, a national flag football championship and a soccer tournament.
It has paid for contests galore.
Carol Daley, of Arlington, Texas, won a "Search for America's Most Deserving Mom" contest from Okaloosa County. Her prizes were a one-week stay in Destin, roundtrip airfare, $1,000 for a spending spree and a 2011 Buick Enclave valued at more than $36,000. Ashley Spencer won a beach photo contest from South Walton Beach that netted her a $15,000 vacation. Franklin County officials sprinkled the area with clues and sponsored a GPS-aided treasure hunt.
A $166,000 Panama City Beach program includes a prom next month for senior citizens. The couple chosen prom king and queen from online submissions will get to invite two friends for a weekend at the beach.
"We think getting these people to talk about why their friends should be queen and king will really help get this viral, talking about Panama City Beach as a fun beach destination," said Dan Rowe, executive director of the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The BP funding paid for almost 20 different festivals.
Santa Rosa County spent $80,000 on a sand-sculpting festival. The money is paying for the Pensacola area's $120,000 Mardi Gras celebration next year, its $25,000 New Year's celebration and a $540,000 music festival. Panama City Beach used the money for a $100,000 pirate-themed festival, a $1.3 million country music festival and a $425,000 Christian music festival.
Panama City Beach's Christmas display includes the ice rink, a candy cane forest and an enormous lights display.
"I think it's a great idea," said Michael Chers, a visitor from Omaha. "People love it."
The BP money was more than tripled the tourism promotion funds normally spent by officials in Okaloosa County. It was double the regular $750,000 budget for tourism officials in Franklin County, home to Apalachicola. The $7 million Bay County got is more than double its normal $3 million budget.
"We wouldn't have been able to do two-thirds of what we did without that BP grant," said Mark Bellinger, executive director of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council. "We just never had the money in the past for television ads."
Tourists stayed away through much of the summer of 2010 after clumps of gooey tar washed ashore during the spill. Pensacola Beach got a got a heavy coating of gunk for a day or two, but beach towns further east saw mostly smaller tar balls. Tourism experts say the area's image suffered from months of news footage of oiled beaches.
Visitors came back in droves, though, in 2011. Okaloosa County had its best-ever June, July and September. In many counties, tourism is up as much as 20 percent over last year.
"It appears the ... efforts have been successful," said BP spokesman Craig Savage. "The campaigns, plus pent-up consumer demand have made 2011 a banner year for tourism in the Panhandle."
Apart from the advertising the Panhandle tourism bureaus have purchased, BP is launching a new national television advertising campaign this week to outline Gulf cleanup efforts.
Florida State University professor Mark Bonn isn't sure negative perceptions about the Panhandle will vanish so quickly, especially the further away the prospective visitor lives.
"I think it's going to be a five-year minimal process before people are convinced that everything is OK," said Bonn, a professor of service management. "I think it takes people time to adjust to situations."
Schneider reported from Orlando, Florida.