Commission approves 2019 budget for county’s tourism agency on 3-2 vote
On May 17, Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley addressed members of the county’s Tourist Development Council (TDC), expressing dismay that county staff had pulled her budget from consideration that day.
Questions remained about whether county staff could support a request from the tourism agency to add $500,000 to its 2019 fiscal year budget, Jeff Maultsby, director of the county’s Office of Business and Economic Development, explained.
Haley was especially worried, she told the TDC members, because she had a June deadline to confirm the county’s commitment to host the Under 23s World Rowing Championships. FISA (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron), the world governing body of the sport of rowing, had given Sarasota County the exclusive right to bid on the 2019 World Rowing Championships for those under the age of 23, she pointed out. That event would be held at Nathan Benderson Park in July 2019, Haley said. One item in her proposed FY19 budget was $750,000 for that bid, she added.
County staff had not been involved in any discussions, as of that point, with FISA about the Under 23s event, Maultsby told the TDC members.
One big question mark, Commissioner Charles Hines — the TDC chair — and Haley noted, was whether Manatee County leaders would agree to participate in the bid. If so, that would reduce Sarasota County’s expense.
On June 11 — with the financial issues resolved between the Visit Sarasota County and Sarasota County staff members — the TDC held a special meeting so it could review Haley’s budget.
The good news, Haley pointed out that day, was that Manatee County had agreed to chip in with the Under 23s bid, so the Visit Sarasota County request from county staff had dropped to $675,000.
She won unanimous support from the TDC, which voted to recommend the County Commission approve her proposed budget and business plan for FY19.
However, when Haley appeared before the commissioners during their June 20 budget workshop, the vote ended up being split, with Commissioner Paul Caragiulo noting that he had not been provided detailed documents from Visit Sarasota County (VSC) in advance of the discussion, so he could ask — as he put it — “hopefully intelligent questions.”
Chair Nancy Detert joined Caragiulo in voting “No.”
Detert’s decision came after commission questions led Haley to explain that the $675,000 was not going directly to FISA or even to USRowing. Instead, it will go to the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA), the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that manages Nathan Benderson Park for the county. (See the related story in this issue.)
Getting down to the details
“Why does the World Rowing Championships [for persons under age 23] cost $675,000?” Detert asked Haley.
“The event is, again, an Olympic-prestige event,” Haley replied. “They have a higher cost.”
Even though the money would go to SANCA, Haley added, Sarasota County “will get a whole series of marketing exposure opportunities provided by FISA for Sarasota County.”
“So we’re paying $675,000 to SANCA?” Detert responded.
“Correct,” Haley said. SANCA has agreements with FISA and USRowing, she added, indicating that FISA would be marketing the event internationally.
“We’re renting our lake?” Detert replied, referring to the fact that the rowing venue, like the rest of Benderson Park, is county property.
The questions members of the public are going to ask, Detert told Haley, are why that amount of money is necessary and what benefits it will bring to the community. “If you’ve got an elevator speech on that, I’d love to hear it.”
The benefits, Haley said, would be the economic impact produced by visitors renting 10,000 hotel rooms — 90% of them in Sarasota County, per the agreement with Manatee County. Of those, Haley continued, 6,800 are anticipated for participants, with the remainder going to spectators. Moreover, Haley explained, Sarasota County would reap “brand exposure” from the event.
During the 2017 World Rowing Championships, Detert responded, the branding was “pretty much” for Benderson Park, not the county.
Haley disagreed, pointing out that Visit Sarasota County was able to run ads about the community during international television coverage of the World Rowing Championships in September 2017, and it had signage prominently displayed at the Finish Line for the rowers. “We actually received a detailed brand report,” Haley added, which included information about the media and social media coverage.
Commissioner Hines also pointed out that, with the Under 23s event next July, families are expected to travel to Sarasota County, so the opportunity through marketing is to entice them to come a couple of days early and stay a couple of days after competition has ended. That would mean more time they would spend in restaurants and in shops, for example. The longer they stay in county hotels, he added, the more Tourist Development Tax — or “bed” tax — revenue the county will receive.
Yet, Hines told Haley, she and the board members need to make sure the public understands that.
On June 26, USRowing announced that the Under 23s event would be held at Benderson Park. A FISA news release quoted USRowing CEO Patrick McNerney: “Hosting the World Rowing Under 23 Championships in the United States is a wonderful opportunity for us to showcase our top college-aged athletes on an international stage and to strengthen the link between the great history and competitiveness of collegiate rowing in the U.S. and world of international rowing.”
The $500,000 question
Commissioner Caragiulo focused his questions mostly on the extra $500,000 Haley had sought for marketing and promotions in Visit Sarasota County’s FY19 budget. “What are the measurables?” he asked after Haley and members of her staff had concluded their presentation.
Haley referred to a list in a PowerPoint slide: The overarching goals are to increase the number of visitors by 5% year-over-year, bring in 11% more Tourist Development Tax revenue and attract at least two new international events.
So 5% more visitors “will deem this plan a success, correct?” Caragiulo asked.
“Correct,” Haley replied.
“How do we track the number of visitors?” Caragiulo then asked.
Haley explained that Visit Sarasota County (VSC) contracts with a research firm whose representatives talk to visitors, inquiring about the number of people in their parties and where they are staying, for example. Those queries occur outside tourist attractions and in places such as Siesta Village and St. Armands Circle, she noted. The firm also examines hotel occupancy data and TDT figures to assist it in compiling the reports.
In response to Caragiulo’s follow-up questions about the validity of the reports, Haley assured him that the “confidence rate” on the results is 95%.
Then Caragiulo asked whether VSC specifically focuses on marketing to entice people to stay in the county’s hotels.
The organization’s general advertising, she explained, is directed to the potential “leisure visitor” — someone who is most likely to want to stay at the beach, who is coming to the area for the warm weather.
They “are typically not staying in hotels,” he responded, if Haley was referring to Siesta Key.
“There are a lot of traditional hotel rooms on Siesta,” she said, though the majority of the accommodations are in condominium complexes.
Another goal, Haley explained, is to draw international visitors, who prefer longer stays — two weeks, generally. She also cited summer family vacationers as another target market.
Commissioner Michael Moran asked her about the pressure on her staff to fill new hotel beds. “What’s the discussion?”
“Sell, sell, sell,” she responded laughingly. “It’s a lot of pressure because we feel that it’s such an opportunity for the community.”
Even late last summer, she pointed out, the county did not have enough hotel rooms to meet the demand for the World Rowing Championships.
Another slide Haley had shown the commission noted that from 2016 through 2018, the county would realize a 23% increase in hotel rooms — 1,177.
She also noted that many of the existing hotels are renovating their facilities to compete with the new accommodations. The Ritz-Carlton in downtown Sarasota, she said, has been updating its property in phases. The Hyatt Regency Sarasota, she added, “is about to undergo a major renovation.”
How would she respond to a taxpayer who is critical of tax dollars going toward “filling hotel beds?” Moran asked.
“We are, I think, lucky,” she said, that companies have chosen to invest in “such quality products” as the Westin and Art Ovation hotels in downtown Sarasota. “[Those facilities] speak to the kind of brand that we’ve been talking about.”
However, Haley continued, “I don’t think it’s an obligation to sell those [new hotel] rooms.” The companies themselves are bringing in sales staff to market specific properties in conjunction with VSC’s efforts, she added.
Chair Detert said she had heard members of the public, too, complain about Haley’s comments regarding filling hotel rooms. Detert pointed out that she had told Haley, “Probably, it’s not good to keep saying [that]. It’s not our responsibility to try to fill our hotel rooms.”
Nonetheless, Detert noted, the people staying in the hotels do generate Tourist Development Tax (TDT) revenue.
When Caragiulo asked why he had not received a detailed version of the VSC budget request for FY19, Commissioner Hines pointed out that the Tourist Development Council members received it in advance of their June 11 meeting. Haley said she suspected that the commissioners did not get it because she was appearing before them outside of the normal sequence for her annual budget presentation; that usually takes place in early summer, during one of their regular meetings before their annual break.
Caragiulo told her that everything in the presentation she and her staff had made “looks really good and professional.” Still, he wanted to see the details.
The information she had provided county staff, which reviews her budget, did have detailed line items, Haley told the commissioners. That all would be included in the formal contract they would need to approve as part of their final FY19 budget process in September.
Detert suggested Haley explain how the extra $500,000 would be used.
Referring to the PowerPoint slides again, Haley noted the increase in funding for advertising, from $2,437,300 in the current fiscal year to $2,960,000 in FY19. Those funds promote cultural activities, sporting events, the county’s natural attractions, its restaurants and meetings, the budget line says.
Additionally, the FY19 budget calls for expenses of $377,000 — up from $315,000 — for marketing to draw more of the leisure travelers Haley had mentioned earlier, and to entice more meeting planners to choose Sarasota County. The “International Sales” category for FY19 also reflects higher spending: $385,000, compared to $350,000 for this fiscal year.
Haley did note a 3% increase in the expense for “Professional Services,” meaning her staff.
After further discussion, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis asked that the board members let Haley know that day whether they would support the extra $500,000 in her FY19 budget and the $675,000 for the Under 23s World Rowing Championships.
“But I’m still foggy,” Caragiulo said of the budget details. He again stressed the need for Haley to ensure that the board members receive all the appropriate materials in advance of the meeting when the materials will be discussed.
At one point, Hines cautioned his colleagues, “We’re really getting down to micromanaging,” though he acknowledged they were talking about taxpayer money. “But to put the brakes on right now, right here, I think, really messes everything up.”
Commissioner Alan Maio ended up making the motion to approve the one-time additional allocation of $500,000 from the county, plus the extra $675,000, and Hines seconded it. When Detert called for the vote, Caragiulo said, “No,” and she joined him in opposing the motion.
Nonetheless, Caragiulo did say, “I’m a ‘No’ today.”