How the tourism industry and politicians keep Florida’s tax money from being spent where we need it most
State law does not allow tourist tax dollars to do anything but promote more tourism. The tourism industry wants it to make sure it stays that way
Published: August 14, 2013
In other words: It’s our money. Keep your damn hands off it.
The obsequious state House of Representatives rejected the county’s request.
To hear the tourism industry tell it, this “marketing only” dictate was handed down from the mountain on stone tablets. It is fixed and immutable, as constant as the Pythagorean theorem, as unalterable as scripture.
“I hate when it’s called the ‘hotel tax’ or the ‘bed tax,’” says Richard Maladecki, the president and CEO of the Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association. The tax was designed 36 years ago “to promote tourism. That’s why it’s called the tourist development tax, to have a tax specifically earmarked for tourism promotions.”
Already in Florida, local governments have tapped the tourism kitty to build sports stadiums – as well as museums and performing arts centers – often over the industry’s objections. State law is amenable to these projects under the theory that professional sports teams boost local economies by luring gobs of outsiders. That’s how the Amway Center was built. But that’s as far as this Pandora’s box opens.
In 2007, during the debate on the downtown venues – the Amway Center, Dr. P. Phillips Performing Arts Center and renovated Citrus Bowl – we were told time and time again that this was our only option if we wanted to derive some benefit from the industry’s pot of gold. It was Them versus Us, Tourism versus Venues.
But what if those weren’t our only choices? Or to put it another way, what would this conversation look like if the question weren’t Tourism versus Venues, but instead Tourism versus Venues versus Schools and Infrastructure and Police?
That’s a question worth keeping in mind over the next few weeks as Orange County considers spending another $57 million in tourism taxes on downtown venues, including a proposed new soccer stadium.
It’s been six years and one month since the Orange County Commission signed off on Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer’s $1 billion-plus venues proposal. Those were controversial projects made more palatable by their funding scheme. About half the money, $540 million, came from Orange County’s tourism tax – the 6 percent surcharge the county levies on hotel rooms, which generated nearly $178 million in 2012 – so, in Dyer’s view, local taxpayers weren’t on the hook, just tourists.
Some (but not all) hoteliers protested. At one point, Harris Rosen, the industry titan and philanthropist whose name adorns five area hotels and the College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida, argued that these venues would benefit “the wealthy few.” After the county approved the venues deal, he mounted a short-lived campaign to force a referendum on the subject. But in the end, the Amway Center opened in 2010, right on schedule, and is today hosting Orlando Magic games and Taylor Swift concerts.
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