Wednesday, April 25, 2018
News Roundup

Tampa attractions protest possible cuts to tourist tax allocations

TAMPA — For all of Judith Lisi's 22 years there, the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts has received a share of tourist taxes paid by hotel guests who visit Hillsborough County.

But now the county's Tourist Development Council is thinking about splitting up that tax money in a new way — one that would create clear winners and losers.

The Tampa Convention Center and Visit Tampa Bay could get more. But starting in 2016, organizations that include the Straz Center, the Florida Aquarium, Lowry Park Zoo and the Museum of Science and Industry could see their allocations cut to zero.

On Thursday, the CEOs of all four institutions turned out to oppose the idea.

"We're all suffering from being underfunded," Lisi told a TDC committee. "To rob Peter to pay Paul, to sit by and just let this happen, I really think doesn't serve our community at all."

Others said the TDC seems poised to make some big changes before it has a common yardstick to measure each organization's performance.

"I'm pretty confident about the (return on investment) that the aquarium is producing with the funds they get," Florida Aquarium CEO Thom Stork said. But he said it would be good to have all the organizations getting the money, the convention center and Visit Tampa Bay included, use the same metric — something that doesn't happen now.

"I'm not just going to roll over and say, 'Fine, let's do this and let's hope that the fund grows,' " Stork said.

At stake is a little more than $1.1 million generated by the tourist tax, which adds 5 percent to the bill for hotel and motel rooms and other overnight rentals.

The first three cents of the room tax generate nearly $12 million annually, with the biggest shares of that money going to Visit Tampa Bay, the private nonprofit convention and visitors bureau for Hillsborough County, followed by debt payments on the convention center and Plant City Stadium. Revenue generated by the fourth and fifth cents of the tax is earmarked primarily to pay bonds for Raymond James Stadium, George M. Steinbrenner Field and the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Currently, the $1.1 million is what is split up among the Straz Center, aquarium and other groups.

In August, the Tourist Development Council, which is made up of tourism and hospitality industry representatives, plus the chairman of the County Commission and the mayors of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace, voted to ask county staff members to work on suggestions to help the Tampa Convention Center.

After 22 years in operation, the 600,000-square-foot convention center needs an estimated $14 million in capital improvements to stay competitive, officials say.

Along with helping out the convention center, the Tourist Development Council also wanted to explore ways to use hard data to steer tourist tax revenues to organizations whose primary role is to generate hotel room nights: the convention center, Visit Tampa Bay and the Tampa Bay Sports Commission.

Another part of the challenge is that tourism officials have talked about creating an incentive fund that would make Tampa and Hillsborough more competitive in seeking the biggest conventions. For example, to compete for the NAACP national convention, an aspiring host city has to write a check for $100,000 just "for the privilege of submitting the bid," said Bob Morrison, the executive director of the Hillsborough County Hotel & Motel Association.

"That's not the exception," said Morrison, who is on a TDC working group studying the changes. "That's the growing rule with more and more large conventions, the kind that we'd like to have."

Lisi agreed the convention center and Visit Tampa Bay both need more money, but so does the Straz Center. It has $14 million worth of capital needs of its own.

The center uses the $470,000 it's getting this year from the tourist tax for out-of-area marketing. Lisi's staff says it has documented that the Straz Center generates more than 100,000 room nights a year, with students and visitors coming from all 50 states and 20 countries.

Turning tourist tax funding into a zero-sum game hurts everyone, Lisi said.

"This is going to start tearing us apart," she said.

The intent of the potential new approach to funding is not to sow division but to frame an answer for the Tourist Development Council, said county economic development director Ronald Barton, who wrote a memo outlining the possible change. Still, there's no denying that addressing one organization's need could have a detrimental impact on others.

"The math is pretty simple," Barton said. "I knew it the minute I walked out that day what the answer was. But you've got to say it out loud. You've got to have the conversation."

The next part of that conversation involves the Tourist Development Council itself, which is scheduled to meet Nov. 8.

"The elected officials can weigh in as well," Morrison said. "Then we'll begin to talk through what are our next steps."

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