Hillsborough County is taking a fresh look at where it spends its tourist tax money in an effort to draw more visitors. It is time for a thorough review, and this move could create a smarter use of tax dollars and enable the Tampa area to better capitalize on its history and character.
At issue is whether to redistribute the allocation for the first 3 cents of the so-called bed tax, which is charged on hotel rooms and other overnight stays. The vast majority of the $12 million generated annually goes to Visit Tampa Bay, the county's tourist promotion agency. The county's Tourist Development Council is considering reapportioning the uncommitted amount, about $1.1 million annually, under a new formula that could take money away from some of Tampa's most high-profile attractions, from the Straz Center for the Performing Arts to the Florida Aquarium.
The purpose is twofold: The county wants to free money to update the 23-year-old Tampa Convention Center, which needs an estimated $14 million in work; and it wants to better use the bed tax to promote activities that would generate more overnight stays. Overnight stays are considered a true measure of tourism, and attracting visitors for days at a time is a way to keep busy area museums, theme parks and restaurants.
The big attractions, of course, oppose the idea. But it's worth exploring. There is no use for the bed tax more appropriate than keeping the convention center competitive as a meeting place; it is a significant economic engine for the entire region, and it introduces thousands of visitors every year to Tampa Bay. The Straz, the aquarium, the Lowry Park Zoo and other attractions have benefitted from millions of dollars in local public support, and it's fair and sensible to consider whether there's more bang for the buck in spreading the money around. Those high-profile attractions, after all, have the means to attract support from private donors.
Rethinking its approach will pay off for the county in other ways. Smaller events could compete for money now going to the big-box attractions, creating a new niche for heritage tourism and other underfunded events. Visit Tampa Bay could be forced to become more entrepreneurial to reduce its overreliance on tax money. And Hillsborough could see the efficiency of joining more formally with Pinellas County to promote tourism on a regional basis.
Most of Tampa's big attractions are publicly owned, and the county has a stake in maintaining their financial health. And the TDC must be mindful to the impact of any cuts in public money on downtown, the heart of the tourist experience. But it's high time to examine whether the bed tax can be put to more strategic use.