Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Split on Bed Tax Cap

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Split on Bed Tax Cap

Article excerpt

Proposal would divert some tourism dollars into venue upgrades. Would that shortchange Sarasota promotion?

SARASOTA

Local tourism officials worry that a plan floated to cap tourism tax funding at $15 million could hurt efforts to promote the community even as Sarasota County is making a national name for itself with beaches and a growing sports niche.

At a recent budget workshop, Sarasota County officials outlined a plan to cap collections, with additional money allocated for capital improvements.

Money collected through tourism tax dollars above the cap would be put into a separate account for use on tourism-related projects, like venue improvements.

But tourism officials say that could limit their ability to promote some of the events coming to the region.

"We're bidding on dozens of high-profile events happening now through 2020. They come with big price tags, and our projections always included the growing tourism tax," said Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, the county's tourism agency. "If that money is invested elsewhere, our efforts will be limited. We won't be able to continue to promote events like we have been."

Commissioners and tourism officials are expected to explore the topic again in May at another workshop, and there is no deadline for the commission to consider the change.

But the 13-member Sarasota County Tourism Development Council already voted against capping the funds at a meeting in March.

The tax

The tourism tax is collected through a levy of 5 percent on hotelroom stays in Sarasota County.

Each percentage point helps pay for specific projects, including beach renourishment and maintenance projects, destination promotion, sports stadium improvements and the arts.

County officials suggested a plan where anything above the $15 million would go into a new capital improvements fund, allowing Sarasota to use the money for a variety of improvements, said Doreen Buonpastore, a fiscal consultant with the county.

"The way the pennies are divided up means the money collected has to be used for a specific purpose," Buonpastore said. "The capital projects fund would allow us to help improve facilities or build new ones, and since we can't use money from the general funds, this would be the easiest way to do that."

For example, Sarasota County invested $350,000 to upgrade the YMCA's swimming center in south Sarasota prior to the venue's hosting the 2013 Pan American Masters Championships last June. The YMCA spent $700,000, which, combined with the county spending, helped improve the pool, grandstands and locker rooms at the facility.

This year, the county allocated $1.7 million to help build a professional-level BMX bike course at the Sarasota BMX Track, Tuttle Avenue and 17th Street. The new and improved course will help the region attract international and Olympic-level events. …

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