In a rare gubernatorial appearance before the state Tourism Commission, Gov. Jim Justice said Thursday he plans to up the division’s $15 million 2018-19 budget request to $20 million — an amount nearly triple the division’s current budget.
“I don’t think it’s enough money, so I changed it to $20 million, and we’re going to find that extra $5 million some way, some how,” Justice said of his decision to increase the budget request, telling the commission that he’s “plumb sick and tired” of constantly seeing tourism and economic development ads for New York and Michigan on television.
“I’ve said it a thousand times: Who in the world wants to go to Detroit?” Justice said of the highly successful “Pure Michigan” ad campaign.
During the 2017 regular session and budget impasse, Justice requested nearly $11.5 million for Tourism, including $6.45 million for advertising, but the Legislature ultimately cut the division’s 2017-18 appropriation to $7.42 million, with $2.42 million for advertising.
In June, Justice specifically lamented the insufficient funding for Tourism when he announced he would let the 2017-18 budget bill become law without his signature, saying, “I can’t possibly put my name on it.”
On Thursday, Justice called on members of the Tourism Commission to help him convince legislators to increase funding for the Tourism Division.
“We need you. We need you badly. We need you to urge your legislators to put more money into tourism,” he said.
Justice, whose business holdings include tourism venues including The Greenbrier and Glade Springs Resort, said expanding tourism is a key component to his plans to grow the state economy, creating new jobs and infrastructure.
“It’s an exciting time for West Virginia, and that’s for daggone sure,” he said. “It’s a hopeful time, a time we’ve aspired to for a long, long time.”
Extolling the state’s potential to grow tourism, Justice said, “It’s so simple. What state could there possibly be that has four seasons like we have? I mean, it’s perfect. It’s not too cold, it’s not too hot. It’s beautiful beyond belief.”
He added, “Plus the fact we may have a whole lot of Chinese here soon,” referencing a yet-unreleased memorandum of understanding with China Energy for as much as $83.7 billion of investment in the state.
Later Thursday, state Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher told commissioners he is “inordinately optimistic” the plan will come to fruition.
“I can tell you as of today, it could not be more on track,” said Thrasher, who said a Chinese delegation had departed earlier Thursday after spending several weeks in the state evaluating potential investment sites. “At this particular juncture, it could not be going better.”
He said that, just as having a state Development Office in Nagoya, Japan, for the past 21 years has helped build relationships that resulted in companies like Toyota, Hino Motors and NGK investing in the state, China Energy has developed relationships through working with researchers at West Virginia University for the past 15 years.
Thrasher, meanwhile, said growing the Division of Tourism’s budget is critical to state economic development efforts.
“We’ve got an image problem, externally and internally,” said Thrasher, who said that when people actually visit the state, those negative perceptions resolve themselves.
Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby said West Virginia is the only state in the region that has seen a decline in tourist spending over the past three years, presumably because of declining state spending on tourism advertising.
However, she said there have been encouraging signs this year, including a 21 percent increase in requests for the state travel guide, and a 103 percent increase in downloads of the digital version of the guide.
She said Tourism will unveil a new format for the travel guide this spring, coinciding with the launch of a new state tourism advertising campaign.