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Bike Path Good Idea, Bad Messaging

Florida celebrated its 176th statehood anniversary on Wednesday, March 3 which was the headline story of my Facebook feed whereas the day prior to that on March 2 the headline story of the Chronicle was the Ft. Island bike trail plan getting a boost.

In case you weren’t fortunate enough to get a newsfeed full of fun Florida facts like I was yesterday, you may not know my favorite one which is the original state motto of Florida that was on the flag was “let us alone” now an ironic declaration for a state so dependent on tourists for our economy.

The contradiction of the motto’s sentiment with the state’s reality is a reflection of a contradiction evident in the Chronicle’s story about the bike trail. Let me start by saying that I support the plan with only a few reservations and commend those elected officials and community leaders for getting the process jump started once again. However, the current messaging is the exact wrong approach, and this story is going to hurt more than it is going to help.

Let’s first identify that this story was not objective journalism, and I’m okay with that, but it needs to be established to best argue why the messaging of this story is a missed opportunity that hurts the goal more than helps. I’ll defend the Chronicle’s lack of objectivity here.

I had a job for my hometown Sarasota Herald-Tribune refurbishing press releases from the community, and that’s essentially what this is, which is why it doesn’t include any sourcing from people who oppose the project and why it includes a link to the well done promotional video.

A community paper should run local press releases to help organizations or causes.

But if that’s the goal, to help, then the messaging needs to be right to actually achieve it. In the lead, in the first quote and potentially stamped across Commissioner Jeff Kinnard’s forehead (if he’s up for it) should be the phrase, “this will not cost the Citrus County resident a cent.”

If you want to be a little more technically correct, you could say, “this will be a positive net revenue project for the Citrus County general fund” but even that is too nuanced.

The funding so far and for the immediate future has come primarily from the Tourism Development Council that is fully funded by the 5% bed tax on hotels, RV slips and rentals and that can’t legally be used on general fund projects like residential road resurfacing. Last year, tax revenue from the Duke Energy new natural gas plant was also used. This still doesn’t constitute tax revenue from Citrus County citizens but rather tourists and a corporation.

Because there is inevitably going to be the person that argues the local establishments pay the tax out of a price point they could be charging to maximize their profits, or that people do stay locally and pay it (as my wife and I did at the lovely Plantation for our anniversary last year) and that Duke may pass the tax cost along to Citrus County power consumers, then yes, there are local costs involved but not in the form of residential tax revenue.

The bulk of the money would come from the state or federal levels, which Citrus County residents contribute to as well, but in such small margins based on the return that it makes the distinction negligible. This is why “a positive net revenue project for Citrus County” may be more correct but is not as effective as “the project won’t cost the resident a cent” which is reasonably true.

Instead, what was published was a story that reinforced some confirmation bias in the public. People who think residential roads aren’t a priority or that expensive vanity projects like this are taxpayer waste feel those beliefs validated and are now in deeper opposition thanks to the very story that’s clear intent was to cheerlead an effort that is applause-worthy. We are already seeing that reflected in the sound off.

The “let us alone” motto captures the sentiment of many Floridians, including myself, who tend to be fiercely independent and, perhaps only in our own minds, self-sufficient but that fails to describe the reality of the state. So too does phrases in the Chronicle’s story like “this project will start with all local money” encapsulate the truth, but one that is woefully misstated at the expense of rallying support behind a great cause.


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