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Tourist tax money debate heating up

Published Oct. 13, 2005

The executive director of the Florida State Fair Authority says too many tourist tax dollars may be subsidizing troubled downtown buildings such as the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and the Tampa Convention Center. Today, that issue is expected to come before the Tourist Development Council, which could decide who wins and who loses in the debate over allocating tax money in a tight budget year.

The council faces a $1.6-million gap between the amount of money in its proposed budget and the amount groups are seeking to promote tourism. Although the Hillsborough County Commission last week refused to eliminate money for groups that make a net profit, fair officials and others are concerned they could lose because they make money.

"I am both baffled and bewildered by the move that is bring orchestrated to deny (Tourist Development Council) funds to events that are not wallowing in red ink," Frank Ross, executive director of the Fair Authority, said in a letter to county commissioners.

"The council shouldn't pour it all into downtown concrete," Ross said in an interview, referring to the Performing Arts Center and the Convention Center, which were built with public money. "The state fair has a major impact on 20 hotels in east Hillsborough. Any money we make, we use to improve our facilities, not pay off debt."

Officials at the Performing Arts Center and the Convention Center are seeking a total of $2.15-million of the $5-million the council expects to spend during 1991-92. The money comes from the 4 percent tax on hotel and other room rentals.

The council's recommendations will be presented to the County Commission, which has the final say.

Warren Sumners, president and chief operating officer of the arts center, said Ross is wrong in implying the center would use the money to reduce a deficit.

"We are looking at the $850,000 to do outreach and marketing, to bring more tour groups to Tampa," Sumners said.

The center receives $500,000 in support from the city of Tampa and at least $1.3-million from private donations as part of its $8-million annual budget, he said.

The fair, which wants $50,000 to help finance marketing to out-of-area residents, is one of three groups that bring in more money than they spend. That touched off a debate at the tourist council, which wanted to cut off funds to those groups. But the County Commission suggested each case be reviewed on its own merits.

The three groups _ the state fair, the Hall of Fame Bowl and a company that puts on annual horse jumping events _ each say that net profits are used for future events or other projects that benefit tourism.

"We should not be penalized to pay for those facilities," said Jim McVay, executive director of the Hall of Fame Bowl, which is seeking $150,000. "We are in competition with many cities to get the best teams we can for the game. That money will help."