As Claims Process Stumbles, Okaloosa County Gets Innovative to Keep Businesses Afloat


In the claims process and other economic relief responses to the BP spill, we’ve seen precious little innovation from national leadership or from BP. Instead, what we’ve seen is just how far-reaching the damages extend, like into counties relying on the drive-through traffic going to the coast. But it’s worth noticing that local communities and organizations are getting innovative and doing it quickly, especially when they are able to bypass the snail’s-pace claims process. It’s a testament to just how hard people on the ground are fighting to stay afloat.

In many Gulf communities, bypassing Mr. Feinberg’s claim process has become an urgent objective. Like when the real estate industry used political clout to force BP to create a separate carve-out fund for realtors. Or when, under immense pressure after word of its enormous advertising budget went public, BP provided a $7 million grant to Northwest Florida coastal counties, seven of them in all.

Now the Destin Log is reporting on an innovative Okaloosa County program that gives BP funds directly to tourists, via $200 debit cards that can be used at local businesses. Reports the Log: “Starting Sept. 17, the first 5,000 people who make a minimum two-night reservation between Sept. 17 and Oct. 31 at one of the registered bed-tax collectors in Okaloosa will receive a $200 debit card that can be used for purchases in the county.” Not a bad incentive to come visit, and a great cash infusion for county businesses.

Okaloosa received about $1.37 million. They’ll spend a million on the debit cards.

The Log quotes Mark Bellinger, director of the Tourist Development Council: “It was an incentive for guests booking new reservations and increasing our occupancy…. I think it was a win-win situation for all businesses located within Okaloosa County. This is a $1 million program that gets put right back into the community. All businesses benefit, whether it’s the gas stations, the retail, the lodging the restaurants, the fishing, you name it.”

This is a trend: The Walton County TDC started a “Be Rewarded” campaign Aug. 2 that offers a $250 gift card to Silver Sands Factory Stores or with Southwest Airlines to anyone who stays at any of the lodgings at beaches of South Walton by Sept. 30.

And in Santa Rosa, a voucher program reimburses people up to 50 percent for staying at a hotel or condominium – but the program ran out of money less than two weeks after starting it.

Big kudos to Okaloosa County, and others, for being smart about helping businesses and residents pull through this mess.

Read more from the Destin Log here:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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