During a rare "emergency tourism industry meeting" Thursday, Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley rallied opposition to a proposal to change the organization's funding allocation.
Sarasota County commissioners during a May 16 budget workshop, will consider a proposal to put a cap on the growth rate of spending to promote the region as a tourist destination. The plan would allow advertising spending to grow at a specific percentage, with any additional revenues collected above that percentage going toward capital projects.
For example, with a baseline promotional budget at roughly $6.5 million in the current fiscal year and a 2% cap on revenue growth, regardless of the amount of tourism development taxes collected, the budget would be $6.63 million in the next fiscal year. Haley warned that this would hinder the county's ability to compete with other municipalities for tourists.
"Once you erode market share it's really hard to get it back," Haley said. "Why does Coke keep advertising?"
But, Commissioner Joe Barbetta, who made the proposal, said investing in renovations of current assets, such as the Sarasota Fairgrounds, or the construction of new facilities, like a downtown aquarium, promotes local tourism in its own way — permanently.
"All I'm saying is that if (tourist taxes) continue to grow rapidly let's use some of that money while the sun's shining to build some assets," Barbetta said in a phone interview with the Sarasota Observer. "My concern is that you can promote all you want, but if you have a red tide outbreak or a hurricane people are going to go elsewhere."
Tourist development taxes are a five-cent levy collected on every dollar spent on short-term rentals in the county. Roughly 33% of the amount collected is allocated for promotional spending.
Haley said capping that spending will hurt hoteliers, especially with about 1,000 new hotel rooms in development in the area.
"It's simple supply and demand," said Sarasota-Manatee Hotel Committee Chairman Rob Ferguson, who said he will be at the commission workshop to protest the proposal. With the supply of hotel rooms slated for a major increase, the county should stoke demand through more tourism advertising, he said.
Barbetta said building a conference center near SRQ Airport would accomplish the same thing and create jobs.
"What I'm trying to do is prevent creating a bigger bureaucracy," Barbetta said.
The proposal would affect anyone in the county, regardless of how closely they're involved with the tourism industry, Haley said. Arts organizations wouldn't be able to provide the amount or quality of shows they do, and downtown wouldn't have such a diverse restaurant scene without promotional spending.
"I think we can fight our battle with what we have, just don't further tie our hands" Haley said.