Two months ago, the Hernando County Commission killed a recommended cost-savings plan to consolidate its two visitor centers into one location in Weeki Wachee. Instead, commissioners now face the prospect of increasing the county's tourist tax to keep the doors open on the east side center welcoming travelers from Interstate 75 and to better finance Hernando's tourism promotion. It's a wise investment and commissioners should increase the so-called bed tax.
Hernando has charged a 3 percent tax on overnight accommodations since 1998. The tax produced $370,000 last year and early returns showed revenue up 5 percent in the first quarter of 2014. Even with the added dollars, the county faces increasing costs as it expands tourism promotional efforts into social media, tries to grab a larger share of the international market, and boosts its advertising for fishing and bird-watching offerings to capitalize on nature-based tourism.
The county's Tourist Development Council (TDC) recommended increasing the tax to 5 percent, with each additional penny-on-the-dollar tax projected to raise up to $130,000 annually. A quirky state law allows the first 1 percent increase to be approved with a simple majority vote of the commission, but requires a four-fifths majority vote to add the second 1 percent. Adding the second 1 percent would allow the TDC to reinstitute fully its grant program to help underwrite the cost of promoting local events and festivals.
Most importantly, though, the extra money will help keep the east side welcome center open. The TDC recommended in May to let the lease expire, but a public outcry from business leaders, landowners and former TDC members, swayed the commission to seek alternatives. The increased tax rate — paid by visitors, not local residents — is a reasonable alternative.
The investment in tourism is worthwhile because of its job creation opportunities. A 2013 Florida TaxWatch report noted jobs created by Florida's tourism industry were second only to the health care/social assistance sector since the U.S. recession ended. Though the jobs tend to be low-wage, averaging $28,100, according to 2012 data, the sheer volume of jobs produces $27 billion worth of disposal income among tourism employees, according to TaxWatch. In Hernando County, tourism-related jobs numbered 5,000 before the recession, but that figure has since dropped to 3,000, said Hernando's tourism coordinator Tammy Heon.
With a $3 million state grant for a proposed nature-based tourism project at Weekiwachee Preserve, planned improvements at the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and a deeper channel at Hernando Beach providing safer boating opportunities, the county is well-positioned to increase its eco-tourism offerings. Failing to spend the money to promote those opportunities sufficiently would be short-sighted and counter-productive to the commission's focus on adding jobs within the county.