July 13 public hearing planned on creating dedicated source of Sarasota County sports tourism funding

5% of annual Tourist Development Tax revenue would go into special fund

This slide shows the economic impact of sports tourism in Sarasota County in the 2020 fiscal year and through most of the first half of the 2021 fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On the morning of Tuesday, July 13, the Sarasota County Commission tentatively is scheduled to conduct a public hearing on dedicating a portion of the county’s Tourist Development Tax revenue to sports tourism activities.

On May 4, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, explained the facets of the proposal that would be included in a county ordinance.

Although she won unanimous County Commission support that day for the drafting of an ordinance, she was unsuccessful in persuading the members of the county’s Tourist Development Council (TDC) to go along with the proposed changes. The latter board voted 2-6 on May 13 in recommending that the County Commission ultimately vote against Rissler’s recommendations.

During a May 4 presentation to the County Commission, Rissler pointed out that staff had agreed that half of the funds generated by the fifth penny of the 5% Tourist Development Tax (TDT) be allocated to sports tourism. That would represent 5% of the total amount of “bed tax” money the county takes in each year, she said. The tax is charged on all accommodations rented for six months or less time.

The revenue each of the five pennies of that tax produces is set aside, by county ordinance, for specific purposes, such as beach maintenance and upkeep of the two Major League Baseball Spring Training facilities that the county owns — Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota and CoolToday Park in North Port.

The change the commissioners supported would affect the source of revenue that Visit Sarasota County, the county’s tourism office, uses in promoting the county to tourists. However, Rissler emphasized, much of that revenue from the TDT penny still would go to Visit Sarasota County. “It would just be dedicated to sports.”

Visit Sarasota County would continue to manage sports tourism for the county, she pointed out. Referring to the staff of that organization, Rissler told the commissioners, “They are great at leveraging existing relationships with key stakeholders,” and they create and facilitate “cohesive community branding that supports future economic development opportunities [in the county].”

Rissler also pointed out that the dedicated TDT funding would be crucial to implementing a 10-year events plan, covering a wide variety of county venues.

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

In an average year, Rissler said, Visit Sarasota County’s request for its sports tourism budget, including funding for staff and administrative expenses, is $725,000. Thus, if the total TDT revenue in a fiscal year added up to $20 million, and 5% of that were dedicated to sports tourism, that would add up to $1 million. Therefore, she noted, after allocating the $725,000 to Visit Sarasota County, the remaining $175,000 could go into the reserve fund for sports tourism.

The total projected expense of the new sports tourism liaison and the volunteer ambassador program is $100,000, Rissler said.

Another facet of her proposal calls for the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department to create a new sports tourism liaison position. That person would work with Visit Sarasota County and event organizers, Rissler added. The employee also would be responsible for developing and implementing a “robust sports ambassador volunteer program for event support,” she said.

“We want the visitors that we brought here to have an amazing time,” she added, so they will come back and, perhaps, buy a house or even relocate their business to the community.

Commission concerns and endorsements

Commissioner Nancy Detert asks a question during the June 9 meeting. News Leader image

As chair of the county’s Tourist Development Council, Commissioner Nancy Detert questioned Rissler about the dedicated sports tourism funding. Detert said she understood the need for special revenue when the county wants to bid on major international events, as it did, for example with the 2017 World Rowing Championships held at Nathan Benderson Park.

However, Detert added, “I’m just not a big fan” of allocating a specific portion of what she called the TDT revenue “pie” to a new initiative.

Rissler explained of the resulting money, “It would not be guaranteed to anyone.”
Just as Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, has to seek commission approval each year for her budget, Rissler continued, the commissioners would have to approve the allocation of any of the sports tourism funding.

Detert ultimately joined her colleagues in supporting Rissler’s recommendations.

Commissioner Ron Cutsinger did ask Rissler for clarification that the money would just come out of the TDT penny proceeds for promotion of the county to visitors.

That is correct, Rissler replied, emphasizing, “We anticipate that a good portion of the [TDT revenue] will absolutely still be eligible for the [Visit Sarasota County] promotion contract for sports.”

Then Cutsinger pointed out that the commissioners had made sports tourism one of their priorities for this year. “It’s an incredible opportunity we have here on the coast … “ If the county builds up the reserve fund Rissler had talked about, Cutsinger continued, “We won’t be scurrying around, figuring out how do we fund [a special event].”

This slide shows the economic impact of sports tourism in the county over the past decade. Image courtesy Sarasota County

He also applauded the plan for creating the sports liaison position, especially in regard to that individual’s being able to coordinate volunteer efforts. Referring to volunteers, Cutsinger added, “They can provide us with the equivalent of many, many full-time workers.”

“Anyone that does not recognize sports tourism as a foundational, financial bedrock of this community is simply not paying attention, in my opinion,” Commissioner Michael Moran said. “We are getting huge returns on our investment,” he continued, stressing that sports tourism is an investment. “Literally, people are moving to our community,” Moran pointed out, after they have visited the county to attend or participate in a major sporting event.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler also voiced his support for Rissler’s proposals. “I think it makes a lot of sense to have a dedicated source of funding that goes towards [sports tourism].”

Taking the revenue from the fifth TDT penny’s proceeds, he added, “is not going to impact the beaches; it’s not going to impact the arts, which I think is important.”

Ziegler noted that the beaches are the county’s top tourism draw, followed by arts and cultural events.

When Detert again asked Rissler for clarification about divvying up the fifth penny’s proceeds, Rissler explained, “We think that’s the easiest and the cleanest way, based on the uses of those five pennies … 50% promotion; 50% sports tourism [for the proceeds of the fifth penny].”

This is part of the proposed, amended ordinance regarding the allocation of the Tourist Development Tax revenue. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Two weeks later, on May 18, during her report to her colleagues as part of their regular meeting, Detert announced the Tourist Development Council’s vote on Rissler’s recommendations. The reasons for their decision varied, Detert explained of the TDC members. Some worried about diverting any of the promotional funds to a different “pot” of money, she noted.

“I just think we need to know how strongly they felt,” Detert continued. “I feel that’s a very smart committee of business people and people from the community …When you get Norm Schimmel to vote ‘No’ on a sports thing,” Detert added, “you need to sit up and take notice of that.”

Schimmel, the vice chair of the TDC, long has been an advocate for sports tourism in the county.

Facts, figures and the future

In opening her May 4 presentation, Rissler reminded the commissioners that she addressed them last year about the potential of putting a greater county focus on sports tourism. They agreed then, she continued, to let her and her staff undertake more research before they made any final decisions.

Rissler noted that the economic impact of sports tourism on the county in the 2020 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, 2020, was almost $110 million. As of April 16 in this fiscal year, she continued, the impact was more than $53 million.

These are among results of the ‘SWOT’ analysis. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During FY 2020, Rissler pointed out, three national and state events were held at the county’s BMX Supercross facilities on 17th Street in Sarasota; “multiple state and national events” were conducted at Fox Lea Farm in Venice; and USA Swimming’s U.S. Open Championships were held at the Selby Aquatic Center, which is located at 8501 Potter Park Drive in Sarasota.

“They came here,” she said, “because we had the right facilities and the right situation here during 2020 to host those events.” She was referring to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisories that people were less likely to become infected with the coronavirus in outdoor settings.

Referencing data collected over the past decade, Rissler noted that the number of county sports tourism events has ranged from 54 in the 2011 fiscal year to 192 in the 2020 fiscal year. The number of hotel room rentals those events produced, a slide showed, grew from 38,082 in 2011 to 84,436 in the 2020 fiscal year.

This graphic provides details about sports tourism in the county during the 2019 fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During their work on sports tourism issues, Rissler pointed out, she and her staff “performed a really detailed analysis,” including a “SWOT” exercise: addressing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

They were very lucky, she noted, because the national Sports Events & Tourism Association (Sports ETA) was putting together its own review of sports tourism at the same time; its report was released in 2020.

The key points in that document, Rissler said, were that sports travelers, event organizers and venues “spent $45.1 billion — that’s with a ‘B’ — across a wide range of sectors in 2019.”

Further, the report noted that the average destination, regardless of its budget, employed 5.3 full-time staff members and had 13.6 individuals altogether, counting part-time personnel and interns.

The Sports ETA analysis also found that the primary reason destinations lost sports tourism business was venue constraints, such as a lack of playing surfaces. The other factors were lack of available dates, high bid fees and incentives, and venue expenses, she said.

A big part of her and her staff’s focus, Rissler told the commissioners, was put on the fact that the investment made in sports tourism facilities in the county “is only as good as the ability to market [them] and provide grant dollars and competitive programs” to draw organizers.

She and her staff also analyzed how comparable counties handle sports tourism, she continued. They found that three of the five counties they contacted use convention and visitors bureaus: Manatee, Collier and Charlotte. The other two — Lee and Polk — have made Sports Development a standalone division of their government operations, she added.

This graphic provides data about how other counties handle sports tourism. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Lee and Polk also dedicate a portion of their tourist development tax revenue to sports, Rissler pointed out.

During the SWOT exercise, she noted, staff found that “a huge weakness” for Sarasota County is the lack of a reserve fund for sports tourism.