Editorial Redux: County Commission should use excess tourism taxes for asset development

Editor’s Note: This editorial was first published in our May 2, 2014 edition. At that time, Visit Sarasota County (VSC), in the person of its president, Virginia Haley, was outraged at the temerity of Commissioner Joe Barbetta, who suggested that some of the tourism tax revenue set aside for promotions be used instead for asset development and infrastructure improvements.

As evidenced in an article in this week’s edition,  Haley and VSC have not lessened their obsession with more and more dollars for promotions, this time including new hotels as part of their focus — though one should presume the hotels would have their own marketing budgets. As the French would say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Accordingly, we felt it timely to revisit this editorial from four years ago.



In the decades following World War II, northern manufacturers were looking for locations in the south, where the weather was more moderate, property taxes were considerably lower, and average wages were a lot less than those paid to a mostly-union workforce in their current locations.

Southern states reacted by establishing offices for economic development, which would work with companies contemplating a new plant location in the south.

Counties and larger cities, not content to trust their states to direct industrial prospects to their corner of the state, established their own industrial development commissions, with staffing and budgets for industrial recruitment.

And thus began what has been disparagingly referred to as the Great Buffalo Hunt … scores of industrial recruiters from cities, counties and states, falling all over themselves to solicit fewer and fewer manufacturing plant relocations. Rather than call off the effort when that truth became evident, all of those agencies “doubled down,” offering more and more incentives to lure dwindling industrial jobs to their areas.

In the latter days of the Great Buffalo Hunt, forward-thinking communities realized that tourism had almost as significant an impact on their local economies as industrial recruitment, with far less environmental impact, and should be developed in the same way. This new effort was in most cases financed by an additional sales tax on lodging.

Tourism Development Authorities and Convention and Visitors Bureaus sprang up across the country like the prairie grass those proverbial buffalo might munch on. Almost overnight, travelers found even rooms in tiny communities cost as much as six to seven percent more with the addition of a room tax.

Unlike the mantra of a popular baseball movie — “If you build it, they will come” — these TDAs and CVBs maintained that if you promote it, they will come.

Communities with natural tourism assets, such as beaches or mountains, tended to fare better than those who were shilling their annual Possum Festival or whatever. But even beachgoers and mountain scenery lovers desire more than one or two activities to lure them to a destination again and again.

What most TDAs and CVBs never understood — and many still do not understand — is that promotion is only a small part of the equation. Much more of tourism tax revenue must be expended on upgrading existing assets, improving infrastructure and developing new attractions.

It is in this context that we were gratified to hear Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta propose that a portion of the local room tax — specifically all revenues that exceed $15 million — be set aside for just those regenerative purposes: improving what we have and adding new tourism assets.

But the reaction of Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County (which used to be the Sarasota County Convention and Visitors Bureau), would lead one to believe Commissioner Barbetta had instead suggested she dart back and forth across Interstate 75 in the dark.

Haley was before the County Commission to ask for almost $800,000 in additional funds for promotion, which mostly had materialized through higher than expected tax collections. Barbetta’s contention — the correct one, we believe — was that increasing tax revenues should not just be spent on more and more promotion and advertising. At some point, we need to build on what we already have, or visitors will tire of the sameness and go somewhere else.

All the advertising dollars in the world will not lure visitors to a location that has lost its luster.

Haley claimed such a plan would make Sarasota unknown to the rest of the world. Only her promotion efforts were the key to bringing more and more tourists to the Suncoast.

She was aided by Commissioner Nora Patterson, who chairs the county’s Tourist Development Council. Patterson and the other members of that council have long been indoctrinated by Haley with the “gospel of promotion,” so Patterson’s words of support sounded as if they had been uttered by Haley herself.

“I’ve been told Sarasota is pretty much a well-kept secret,” Patterson stated, in defending Haley’s request for more promotion dollars.

Really? We suspect the locals who find navigating seasonal traffic a maddening affair would beg to differ. If Sarasota is such a well-kept secret, where are all of these people coming from?

If anything, Sarasota is much better known than either Haley or Patterson would have us believe. The perennial ranking of Siesta Beach in the top five of Dr. Beach’s list of best beaches in America — and eventual claim to the No. 1 spot — did a great deal to raise awareness of our area. And promotion dollars spent by Visit Sarasota County did not influence Dr. Beach in making his assessment of our nonpareil beach. Mother Nature did that.

Yet Haley and Visit Sarasota County crowed about the No. 1 beach designation as if it was the end of a years-long promotional campaign on their part.

After the county added the last half-cent increment in 2011, making the room tax a full five percent (and that half-cent was earmarked exclusively for “promotion”), total tourism tax revenues jumped by more than 21 percent, for a total in Fiscal Year 2012 of $13,976,000. So the $15 million cap that Commissioner Barbetta proposes is a very reasonable one.

Even at $15 million, the established allocation for promotion would be more than $5 million each year. The current revised budget of Visit Sarasota County is much larger — $6,360,718 — because of other statutory allocations that are administered by the CVB.

In fairness, that cap should adjusted upward each year by the amount of annual inflation. But all taxes that exceed that amount should be earmarked for tourism asset and infrastructure development.

One would think that, with the opening of Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista in 1971, Orlando had all of the tourism assets it possibly could hope for. Yet Disney has constantly upgraded and improved the theme park over the last four decades, knowing that newer and better experiences are what keep the crowds coming back.

And the many companion theme parks that have sprung up in the area since — Universal Studios and SeaWorld, to name just a couple — have further burnished the reputation of Greater Orlando as a destination of international renown.

Sarasota County has some nice beaches. Period. Despite Ed Smith Stadium, the Ringling Museum, Myakka State Park and Nathan Benderson Park, there are no destination attractions that compare with Siesta Beach. But there could be.

Let us hope that Barbetta’s vision will not be squelched by the provincial thinking of those who subscribe wholly to the “promote, promote, promote!” mantra. Let us hope that some of the tax dollars our visitors pay to us can help develop attractions that will bring them back for more … along with their friends and acquaintances.