By Gerald Decker
I have a suggestion for getting our many visitors to help Fernandina Beach voluntarily with the upkeep of our public assets. Tourists spend a lot of money here, but who pays for the facilities they use? That includes roads, sidewalks, beach walkovers, city parks and recreational facilities. We pay those bills.
I call the program I have in mind “My Fernandina.” Here is how it would work:
Restaurants, bars and retail shops within the city limits would agree to add a My Fernandina donation to customer bills—just as adding a suggested tip is done now—which customers can elect to pay or not as they prefer. This is a voluntary payment, not a tax.
As an incentive to participate, businesses may request a rebate that covers some or all of the expenses incurred by accepting My Fernandina donations.
The exact formula for calculating voluntary donations and rebates would be established by a city resolution creating the My Fernandina program based on recommendations from the city manager. Ideally, the level of participation and formula would generate revenue approximating the city’s share of state sales tax.
Money collected would be remitted to the city and placed in a special fund. The fund would be used to help offset maintenance costs for public facilities and services impacted directly by our tourist visitors,.
A program similar to this was tested by the Tourist Development Council, but failed largely because of the pandemic. My Fernandina should benefit from lessons learned in that pilot program. Done correctly, everyone will benefit, and together we will keep Fernandina Beach the charming small town that all can enjoy.
Implementation would require communication, planning and procedures:
— Communicating with businesses to create awareness and answer questions.
— Establishing procedures for enrolling participants and for administering the program.
— Creating training for business owners and staff on how to explain the program and how to handle collections. The benefit must outweigh the effort to gain acceptance.
— Planning and prioritizing worthy projects made possible by My Fernandina program funds.
The tourist council modeled its program on a very successful one used by St. Simons Island over the last decade—a program that has generated as much as $800K in a single year.
We can do even better and create value for all stakeholders. Our Fernandina is worth it.
The author is a retired technology executive who moved here with his wife15 years ago to run a small business. He is a Vietnam veteran and has served as past chair of the Marina Advisory Board.