Franklin County is accustomed to seeing a steady increase in its tourism numbers but in March and April, the numbers skyrocketed like a Roman candle on the Fourth of July.
In a report to county commissioners Tuesday morning, Tourist Development Council Administrator John Solomon reported that collections in March more than doubled over 2020, and more than octupled over last April. (That’s an eight-fold increase.)
Now that might not be mind-blowing, given the fact that those months in 2020 were at the start of the nationwide COVID-19 shutdown, and so were abnormally low.
This year’s record March collections of $149,485 were about 108 percent more than last year’s roughly $72,000, an increase of $77,538.
April collections were $181,178, an 803 percent increase over the meager $20,000 or so in 2020, a hike of about $161,111 for an April record.
But the surer sign of steady growth was found when compared to 2019, a normal year. The March collections were 17 percent over March 2019, and set a new record for March by $21,510.
In April, the total marked a 120 percent increase over April 2019, making for the highest collections for the month of April by $77,755.
The challenge now, Solomon told commissioners, is finding sufficient workers to fill all the jobs needed to serve this growing tourist clientele.
“Businesses and restaurants are doing the best they have ever done,” he said. “Job openings are there but they don’t have anyone to fill them.”
Solomon estimated there are upwards of 50 to 60 hospitality job openings being advertised, with many paying $15 to $17 an hour.
“It’s the workforce we’re having an issue with with the boom in tourism,” he said.
Commission Chairman Ricky Jones said some businesses in Eastpoint have scaled back to just five days a week.
“They’re just working five days a week because those five days they’re wide open the whole day,” he said.
“Imagine if they had the staff to open seven days,” said County Coordinator Michael Moron.
Solomon said the TDC has started a campaign to thank hospitality workers, and show the county appreciates their getting out back into the workforce. He said the county will learn from the Visit Florida report released in the middle of next year what the economic impact of this tourism boost has had, including on other sales tax revenues.
He said the county last year had one of the largest lodging tax revenue increases in the state, a modest increase of a few percentage points, but still considerably better than the many counties that saw declines.
“We were one of the only counties that had an increase. It may not have been a big one but we did have an increase,” Solomon said. “From 5 to nearly 8 percent is a big increase for a small county and I think it’s going to be larger next year.”
He said the county’s 3 percent lodging tax revenues are running at 165 percent ahead of this same point last year.
“We’ve also had the benefit of being open,” earlier than many other counties, said Jones.
Commissioner Noah Lockley stressed the need for infrastructure improvements, and Solomon said that will be the first order of business when it comes time to disburse the increased collections, which rose to 3 percent as of the start of July.
“It (infrastructure) makes it easier on visitors and locals as well,” Solomon said.
“One thing I wish we could help is the labor issue,” he said, noting that he knows a waitress at a popular restaurant who is taking home about $1,400 in tips for a 22-hour work week. “That’s pretty good.”
Commissioner Bert Boldt said the county should consider the creation of an all-volunteer economic development board. “Think of it (tourism) as an entire countywide issue now,” he said.
Jones said the county is waiting on a report from the Apalachee Regional Planning Council that will assist in providing technical assistance on the creation of an economic development council for the county.