James L. Rosica, (@jlrosicaTBO)
Gov. Rick Scott vetoed money for the free cup of Florida citrus juice that travelers get at the state’s official welcome centers, but now the Citrus Department says it will pick up the tab.
The juice is saved.
For decades, a cup of orange or grapefruit juice greeted tourists and others coming into the state who stopped at one of Florida’s welcome centers on Interstates 10, 75 and 95 and U.S. 231.
Visit Florida, the state’s tourism agency, operates the centers and the Citrus Department supplies “100 percent pure, not-from-concentrate orange and grapefruit juice,” according to state records.
What’s important about the tradition is not simply giving away a 4-ounce cup of free juice, a department spokesman said. It’s often the first “hands-on” advertisement that many people get for the Sunshine State.
“People’s affection for orange juice has a lot to do with their affection for Florida,” spokesman David Steele said. “We want that affection to be not just in the moment, but long term.”
A problem arose because the department has to buy that juice from Florida’s growers, whose crops have suffered in recent years from citrus greening. The disease turns fruit green and inedible.
The Citrus Department funds itself by getting a cut of citrus revenues. When crops shrink, sales go down, and the department makes less money, Steele explained.
In 2003-04, the department’s budget was $61.7 million; for 2015-16, it is $32.9 million – a drop of almost half from over a little more than a decade.
The department even flirted with discontinuing the free juice last year, Steele said. Ultimately, officials decided it was too iconic to let disappear.
“We decided it was more important to be able to connect with people at a time when they’re particularly receptive to the charms of the state,” Steele said.