It’s back. The call for a downtown conference center.
Here we go again.
You would be hard-pressed to disagree with the idea that Sarasota would make a great place for out-of-town business groups and associations to have their annual conferences. We have it all — weather, physical beauty, beaches, restaurants, cultural events and, to an increasing extent, shopping.
And we know: It’s not exaggerating to say people who come here for the first time from out of town become smitten with Sarasota. To be sure, Sarasota would be a great place for a conference center. And having a downtown conference center that hosts out-of-town guests year-round would be great for the local economy. Tourism is a wonderful export. We sell our goods and services to outsiders, and they bring in new dollars to the community, boosting the wealth of the local economy. What’s more, one of the great things is, like snowbirds, conference center attendees go back home.
Long-time Sarasota businessman/entrepreneur Charles Githler has been making these arguments for more than 20 years. As noted last week in Observer Digital Editor Alex Mahadevan’s report, “Do we need a conference center?” Githler is at it again — trying with his senior vice president at Githler Development, Andy Dorr, to rally public and political support for a tax-revenue-subsidized conference center.
Not a convention center, mind you. A conference center, a smaller venue.
Apparently, county commissioners are warming up to the idea. As the Sarasota Observer reported, county Commissioners Carolyn Mason, Paul Caragiulo and Alan Maio have expressed support for such a venue.
Great idea. What about the funding?
Githler, Dorr and former county Commissioner Joe Barbetta spoke of a partnership of a private developer and conference center taxing authority that would issue, say, $10 million to $20 million in bonds, which would be repaid from the county’s tourist-tax revenues. Dorr estimated such a center might require, say, $500,000 to $1 million a year in public funding for operations.
Dorr told the Sarasota Observer a conference center with 80 meetings a year could generate $60 million a year in economic impact.
It’s sounds appealing, tempting.
But the story hasn’t changed. Economic textbooks and think-tank studies are full of data and narratives showing public-funded sports stadia, convention centers, aquaria, high-speed rail systems and conference centers never live up to their economic predictions and expectations.
To be blunt, if a downtown conference center is such a profitable idea, then why aren’t Githler and Dorr developing one themselves? Why aren’t hotel, resort and meeting operators pooling their private investment capital to build and operate a private conference center?
One of the ironies for us is that Githler pretty much falls into the category of a laissez-faire, free-market economics libertarian. But on this subject, that of a conference center, he has had an Achilles heel. Sorry, Charlie, we can’t help but think of the late Milton Friedman’s great book, “Free to Choose,” in this instance. In it, Friedman notes that one of the peculiarities of many titans of American business has always been this: When it comes to seeking government subsidies, business is almost always the first in line.
For years, we have lamented the no-growth, anti-business policies of the Sarasota City Commission and, to a lesser extent, the Sarasota County Commission. Their land-use and regulatory regimes make it difficult for business and economic development. What’s more, Sarasota taxpayers have made it known over the years they don’t cotton much to the idea of subsidizing the tourism industry.
Sure, conference-center proponents can make the argument that local taxpayers would not be subsidizing a conference center; bond repayment would come from tourists paying the bed tax. But even that is a thin argument. Steve Forbes of Forbes magazine, and a friend of Githler, often notes raising prices — on any good or service — virtually guarantees less demand. Raising tourist taxes — an inevitable step to cover increased spending demands from a conference center, beach maintenance and tourism promotion — would result in less tourism spending than might otherwise occur.
We would cheer the addition of more conference space in Sarasota. It’s needed, and there is demand for it. But we would cheer louder if it came from the private sector.
IT’S THE ATTITUDE: ALWAYS NEGATIVE
It’s a small matter in the scheme of the city of Sarasota’s challenges. But it’s yet another illustration of the attitude and actions that emanate from the City Commission: negativity, seldom an effort to find a way to say, “Let’s find a way to make this happen and make it work.”
The issue: Bellora Park.
“This is not a park,”Todd Kucharski, Sarasota’s general manager of public works told the City Commission. “It’s a parcel of land that the city owns. It’s nothing more than a glorified right of way.”
Yes, a scruffy right of way that the city maintains maybe three times a year. It does nothing to enhance the look and value of the neighborhood.
Then along comes Level Homes, a developer of a 23-unit residential subdivision in the north Sarasota neighborhood of Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores.
Level offered to the city to maintain this “glorified piece of right of way” at its own expense. In exchange, it asked the city to let it call the parcel “Bellora Park.”
But with Vice Mayor Susan Chapman the leading naysayer again, the commissioners unanimously rejected the “yes” recommendation of the city parks board and said no to the naming. Commissioners thought Level Homes would be getting a much better deal than the city.
Classic Sarasota City Commission.
It seldom, if ever, seems to cross the minds of the commissioners — particularly those of Chapman and Mayor Willie Shaw — to make an effort to create and build a positive relationship.
It apparently doesn’t occur to them to consider the larger scope. Take the developer, Level Homes. Its owners have come from Louisiana and are injecting new capital, new investment into the city. And this investment presumably is going to result in 23 new residences that will help increase the city’s tax base and add tangible value to Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores and to the city. Exactly the kind of investment this cash-strapped city needs.
Nor, apparently, does it or did it occur to the city commissioners that if they accepted the Bellora Park proposal with a cooperative welcoming attitude, rather than the combative negative attitude that permeates the City Commission Chambers, they very well would be/could be starting a relationship that would lead to additional investment into the city from the owners of Level Homes.
That’s the way it works in the private sector. Two parties strive to conduct a positive, mutually beneficial transaction, and inevitably, if that small transaction is positive, it leads to another and another. And the positive relationship grows, often into a mutually profitable long-term relationship.
This reminds us of the advice of the late Sarasota icon and entrepreneur, Edith Barr Dunn: “If you want friends, be a friend.”