A pair of Tourist Development Council public hearings last week, conducted to convince county residents to boost the bed tax bounty paid by tourists, were met mainly with support but not without criticisms.
The proposal to double the tax on transient rentals, from 2 to 4 percent, was on tables at both ends of the county, beginning in Carrabelle July 30 for a session that started 10 minutes later than scheduled in hopes more people would attend. Fewer than two dozen attended.
Paul Parker, owner of Harbor Point Vacation Rentals on Alligator Point and one of three TDC members who represent the lodging industry, told the gathering at the city offices that “in the beginning I was against it. We have definitely seen the results of advertising in a revenue increase. Using TDC funds really worked, especially when we had the BP money.
“The one thing that keeps growing is the tourist economy,” he said. “The biggest gains in occupancy and revenue have been in the off-season. There is a multiplier effect when these dollars enter the local economy.”
Fran Edwards, assistant to TDC Administrator Curt Blair, told the group the $2.5 million in BP money “allowed us to compete so we can come up to the big boys. For the first time, we were able to advertise from Texas up to the Canadian border.
“We’ve never been able to do that. We found out what worked and what didn’t at BP’s expense,” she said. “We were able to learn from our mistakes.”
Suzanne Zimmerman, director of the Carrabelle Chamber of Commerce, said there is a multiplier effect to a more robust calendar. “We need to fund the kind of events people want to attend,” she said. “People who visit see the possibility of opening a business here.”
Photographer Royce Rolstad said he supported the increase. “After the BP campaign I saw my business double from 2011 to 2012,” he said. “I think we need more tax money to bring more people.”
In Apalachicola two nights later, Jim Bachrach, from Main Street Apalachicola, conducted the meeting, drawing on a pair of colorful charts.
TDC members on hand included Bev Hewitt, who represents the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce, Diana Prickett, who co-owns Resort Vacation Rentals and holds one of three seats dedicated to the lodging industry, Chester Reese, who represents the Carrabelle Chamber of Commerce; and staff members Blair and Fran Edwards.
Bachrach said the proposed tax, if doubled, would produce about $800,000 of additional annual revenue, and help make up for the loss of millions in funding from BP that flowed into the county after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
He said that at 2 percent, Franklin was tied with four other Florida counties for the lowest bed tax in the state. “Most critical is to compare us to neighboring counties,” he said, holding up a chart that indicated that Bay, Leon and Okaloosa each had a 5 percent bed tax; Walton 4.5 percent; and Escambia, Santa Rosa, Wakulla and Gulf counties each at 4 percent.
Anita Grove, director of the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that while Franklin’s percentage was lower, it actually generated more funds than some neighboring counties with higher percentages.
“That’s not a good comparison. We do have a lot of units,” she said.
A pie chart Bachrach displayed outlining proposed uses of the additional funds indicated about $450,000 of the monies would be spent on out-of-area marketing, another $200,000 would go to seafood promotion, $100,000 would be earmarked for support of nonprofit organizations and $100,000 for visitor centers.
“It can bring this community into a 12-month community instead of a little flash in the pan community,” said Reese. “We’re utilizing this for the future of our county, maybe we can have charter fishing in the wintertime. This is the idea this is looking to the future of the county.”
While the marketing monies drew little comment, the funds proposed for seafood promotion, non-profits and visitor centers drew interest.
Blair said the TDC board has made a commitment to rebranding the importance of seafood in its message. and “to begin to look at some of the seafood infrastructure,” but that specifics have not been hammered out.
“It’s not been decided, it’s an allocation the board would make,” he said. “We’re looking to get input for the best way to do that.”
Reese, who told the gathering earlier that his charter fishing service had seen an improvement in recent years, said that as part of “a new conversation” on seafood promotion, there was discussion on promoting how charter fishing guides provide seafood to the recreational fishermen that they serve.
A need for Eastpoint welcome center?
Whether to invest in creating a fourth visitor center in Eastpoint drew discussion. Blair said each of the three existing visitor centers – in Carrabelle St. George Island and Apalachicola – had requested additional funds beyond the $35,000 that each now receives.
In addition, county commissioners, while not yet formally voting to approve a new visitor center in Eastpoint, have asked the TDC to find $90,000 for its possible funding. Commissioner Pinki Jackel, who chairs the TDC, has emerged as the leading proponent of this idea.
“I think the expectation is that the basic function would serve as a visitor center, and possibly moving administrative offices,” Blair said at the July 18 budget workshop. “We haven’t gotten into any detail on that.”
Lynn Wilson, who owns the Coombs House Inn bed-and-breakfast, said that in her view, more than half of the visitors to the county come from the west, and asked “Is it wise to have an Eastpoint visitor center? Is this a wise use of funds? Is there a need for Eastpoint?”
Prickett said the thinking behind the proposal is that “we’re trying to get the people who are just coming through. It would strictly be just an information center. You may pick up some people you would not normally get. Is it a definite? I don’t know, but it would be more centrally located.”
Wilson offered cautious support for a boost to the bed tax. “It’s a complicated issue for me,” she said. “I think the bed tax is an excellent thing, it does a lot for the counties, it does a lot of things not related to tourist development, the general bringing of more revenue.
“I think it is a positive thing.” she said. “But it would be a whole lot easier if it were 10 percent.”
As it stands now, a tourist renting a room pays a combined sales tax of 9 percent, which includes the 6 percent state sales tax, the 1 percent local sales tax, and the 2 percent bed tax. Add another 2 percent, and it would go to 11 percent.
“Strategically invested it could be a benefit,” she said. “I would like to know the money is going to be used very strategically. Be careful, we are wonderful but we have some shortcomings, and make it 10 percent and spend it wisely.”
Judi Stokowski, who together with hotel manager Leigh Coble were representing the Water Street Hotel, came down against the bed tax increase.
“A tax is a tax is a tax,” said Stokowski. “People will ask me what my total is going to be. These folks have money but they’re still looking at it. People are watching their nickels and dimes, I can guarantee they are watching every penny.”
Mike Koun, co-owner of the Gibson Inn, did not weigh in for or against the tax, but asked why lodging providers in Apalachicola, owners of hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfasts, have never had a seat on the TDC. “Could they come together and get a seat on the board?” he asked. “We have a thing to sell that is different.”
Blair said one of the three lodging company seats would be opening up in the fall, when longtime TDC member Alice Collins plans to step down.
While not arguing for or against the bed tax hike, Clerk of Courts Marcia Johnson said the county should weight carefully how it plans to use the additional monies.
“People have to understand there’s a certain limit on how high the percentage can go up,” she said. “If we want tourists to come here people have to have open minds as to what is going to attract tourists. We have the beach and the rivers. We don’t have bowling alleys and movie theatres and water parks and things like that that attract people with children.
“If we go up on the tax I’m worried that people are going to pay more. We may be running some people off from coming here if we raise that,” she said.