Dedicated sports tourism funding stream wins final approval of County Commission

Amended Tourist Development Tax ordinance goes into effect on Oct. 1

A chart shows how the Tourist Development Tax revenue will be allocated, effective Oct. 1, based on the amended ordinance the commissioners approved this week. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On May 13, three-fourths of the members of Sarasota County’s Tourist Development Council (TDC) who were present voted against a county Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources (PRNR) Department proposal to dedicate a percentage of the county’s “bed tax” revenue to sports tourism.

Yet, when the County Commission held its public hearing this week on the proposal, none of those individuals was present to urge the commissioners to vote “No.”

In fact, no members of the public addressed the commissioners on the topic.

The hearing was listed as a “Presentation Upon Request” item on the agenda, but none of the commissioners asked for staff remarks.

They had discussed the topic at length with PRNR Director Nicole Rissler on May 4, when she provided details about the proposal for the dedicated funding source.

At that time, Rissler explained that the allocation of 5% of the annual Tourist Development Tax — or “bed tax” — revenue each year to sports tourism would enable staff to build up a reserve fund that could be used when staff wanted to bid on major events, such as the World Rowing Championships.

She added that staff wanted to allow Visit Sarasota County to continue to manage sports tourism, so part of the money collected each year would continue to go to that agency for that purpose.

The 5% Tourist Development Tax (TDT) is charged on rentals of accommodations for six months or less time.

Nonetheless, the “pot” of TDT revenue from which the sports tourism funds would come has been dedicated entirely to promotion of the county to tourists. In other words, all the money was going to Visit Sarasota County.

During the May 13 Tourist Development Council meeting, members peppered Rissler with questions about diverting 50% of the proceeds in the “pot” of funds from the fifth penny of the 5% TDT tax.

This chart, presented to the Tourist Development Council in February, shows how the Tourist Development Tax revenue has been divvied up. Image courtesy Sarasota County

(As the county website notes, “The Tourist Development Council (TDC) recommends tourism policy to the County Commission and oversees the use of tourist development tax revenues, pursuant to Florida law. The TDC discusses factors affecting tourist development, local culture, and beach maintenance and restoration, as well as the needs of the tourist industry.” The website adds that the members “[s]hould be collectors of Tourist Development Tax or involved with/interested in Tourist Development.”)

For example, TDC member Kim Matlock of the Matlock Digital Group in Venice asked Rissler, “Has Visit Sarasota as an organization ever denied you marketing funds” when the county needed the money to bid on an event?

“We don’t request funds from them,” Rissler explained. “They request funds from Sarasota County.”

Kim Matlock. Image from her LinkedIn account

When Matlock asked why the county’s Tourist Development Tax ordinance needed to be amended to dedicate the funding from the fifth bed tax penny, Rissler told her, “We really feel that it’s important to build this reserve,” so staff will have the money when it is needed for bids for major events.

“Visit Sarasota County technically can’t commit to more than one year out,” in terms of funding guarantees, Rissler added, because it operates under a one-year contract with the county.

Rissler further stressed, “Sports tourism has been a major policy initiative for our Board of County Commissioners, and they asked us to go and look at this [idea of dedicated funding].”

When Matlock then asked about the future diminishment of the promotional funds because of revenue from the same penny going to Mote Marine Laboratory for its Science Education Aquarium, Rissler told her, “There has been no ordinance change associated with Mote at this time,” even though the commissioners have discussed that potential.

On Jan. 15, 2020, the commissioners unanimously committed to allocating $20 million for the Aquarium project, with the money to come out of the bed tax revenue. During that meeting, Kim Radtke, director of the Office of Financial Management, showed the board members a slide indicating that another promotional “pot” of bed tax money could be used as the source for the Mote support.

The approximately $130-million Aquarium will be built on county land at Nathan Benderson Park, near Interstate 75.

Contrasting votes

During the TDC meeting, Rissler also stressed that the bed tax revenue would not be used for any sports facilities or the promotion of leisure sporting activities. “This is specifically about driving heads in beds through sports events and training,” Rissler added.

The “heads in beds” phrase is one that Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, and her staff use to refer to tourists staying in paid accommodations in the county, which results in Tourist Development Tax revenue.

Nicole Rissler. File photo

Commissioner Nancy Detert, who chairs the Tourist Development Council, pointed out that if she and her colleagues approved the dedicated funding for sports tourism, and they found the process was not working as envisioned, they could amend the ordinance again to rectify the situation.

Rissler also stressed of Visit Sarasota County’s staff members, “They’re doing a great job.” However, she added, staff believes that both Visit Sarasota County and PRNR representatives could be more aggressive in going after major national and international events.

“I like this,” North Port Mayor Jill Luke said, adding that the plan would be a “great economic driver.”

Luke ended up making a motion to recommend the proposed funding change to the County Commission, even though the commissioners on May 4 already had expressed support for the plan.

Detert seconded it.

Then, when Detert called for the vote, the motion failed 2-6, with only Luke and Detert supporting it.

Detert did tell Rissler that, if the funding stream won final County Commission approval, as expected, she would like to hear a report in a year or two about the return on investment and measurable outcomes.

During the July 13 County Commission meeting, Detert made the motion to approve the dedication of the bed tax revenue to sports tourism, and Commissioner Ron Cutsinger seconded it.

The motion passed 5-0.

The amended ordinance for the TDT revenue goes into effect on Oct. 1, which is the start of the 2022 fiscal year.