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Cover 08/14

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

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The performing arts center and Citrus Bowl, however, have found themselves bedeviled by delays and funding shortfalls. And so on Tuesday, Aug. 6, they were in the Orange County Commission chambers pleading for more money: $12 million for the Citrus Bowl renovation, without which Florida Citrus Sports officials claim they won’t be nationally competitive; and $25 million to “expedite construction” of the arts center’s second phase and “jump-start” the necessary philanthropy, according to a county slideshow prepared before the hearing. (That presentation also noted that spending on the “most popular venue” – the arts center – “reduces the pressure to broaden the use of” tourist taxes.)

This package’s shiny hood ornament is the 20,000-seat downtown soccer stadium, built to house Orlando City Soccer, which needs the facility to become a Major League Soccer franchise (“Goal rush,” May 8). The stadium’s first phase would cost $85 million, of which $30 million would come from the team, $20 million from the city, $20 million from tourism taxes and $15 million from unidentified “other sources.” Orlando City also hopes to win $30 million in state sales tax rebates during next year’s legislative session, which it would use to complete the stadium.

Tourism honchos, skeptical of their funds being raided again, worked mostly behind the scenes. In separate letters to the county, Rosen and the CFHLA demanded that tourist tax money first be spent on improvements to the Orange County Convention Center – already the second-largest convention center in the country – and Visit Orlando, the tourism-marketing agency that receives more than $36 million a year in tourism funds. Only then, if tourism revenues continue rising at a hellfire clip, at least 5 percent a year, would they be willing to talk about those other things.

In an interview the day after that County Commission meeting, Maladecki was circumspect, careful not to say anything too pointed about the venues, which he says his organization is still evaluating: “The idea of utilizing the tourist tax for venues is a legal use of the law. The industry and elected leaders need to always examine the ROI and see what the best return is to maximize visitation.”

At the hearing, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs offered an assessment sympathetic to the industry’s concerns: “Before transformation comes, we must ensure a strong foundation. With respect to the use of [tourist taxes], which are limited in their purpose, as a non-negotiable starting point, always we must protect our public economic engine, our Orange County Convention Center.”

Two days later, on Aug. 8, mayors Jacobs and Dyer announced an agreement fashioned to please everyone: The venues would get their money. In addition, Visit Orlando would receive an extra $25 million over the next five years for tourism promotion, as well as $2.5 million earmarked specifically for sports marketing; and the convention center, the tourism industry’s crown jewel, would receive an additional $10 million. The total price tag: $94.5 million.

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