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Visitors bureau budget cut, but still up $1 million

Monday, September 26, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo won a round Thursday in her battle to use more of Austin’s tourism dollars to promote Austin’s heritage. City Council cut the tourism promotion budget of the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau by approximately $1 million out of a proposed $16.5 million overall allocation from the city for its budget. Council also directed the bureau to look for more ways to promote Austin’s history and culture.

Tovo was hoping to limit that budget to the same amount as last year, $14.5 million, but Mayor Steve Adler was not willing to go along with a $2 million cut, so Council eventually voted to give the bureau $1 million less than last year – or about $15.5 million.

Council also directed the ACVB to add $300,000 to its fund for heritage marketing, which had been $200,000. In the backup material for Thursday’s Council meeting, ACVB staff said that the $2 million proposed reduction would cause the elimination of heritage marketing but that it would continue to fund that type of marketing if the funding was restored.

The city uses funds generated by the Hotel Occupancy Tax, known as the HOT tax, for the ACVB, but state law restricts how much can be spent on various areas. The limit for funding cultural arts is 15 percent of the HOT tax. During the upcoming fiscal year, the HOT tax will generate an estimated $90 million. During Fiscal Year 2015-2016, that amount was estimated at $79 million, according to city budget documents.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair helped start a conversation about using HOT money for items outside the ACVB’s purview, but she was out on maternity leave last week.

A large contingent from the Red River Cultural District told Council that they wanted the bureau to direct more tourists to their district. The district is one of several that have struggled with increasing rents and other development pressures.

Tovo noted after the vote that Council had directed ACVB to use the $1 million Council put back into its budget to increase its investment in “heritage tourism marketing and diversity marketing” and to work with the city’s Economic Development Department to support the cultural heritage districts “such as the Red River cultural heritage district and the African American Cultural Heritage District, and also to (expand) their heritage tourism grants.”

Tom Noonan, CEO of the visitors bureau, told the Austin Monitor, “We want to do increased diversity marketing, LGBTQ marketing, and we’ll do that, and we’re using music as an incentive a lot now for groups that come in.” For example, he said, ACVB will pay for a band for groups who book the convention center.

However, Noonan said that his organization has struggled to find appropriate applicants for heritage and cultural grants.

“We have a $200,000 pot, and sometimes we’re spending $120,000 to $130,000 because that’s all that has come to us and that’s all we can approve. So it’s not that we don’t want to do it,” he said.

The other problem, Noonan told the Monitor, is that sometimes the ACVB will approve applications but the Historic Landmark Commission will reject them. “Not only do they have to have a heritage element, but also a tourism component. … So we’ve got to find another plan.”

People testifying at Thursday’s Council meeting about the ACVB budget included Skeeter Miller, owner of County Line Barbecue, who was one of the only people who asked Council to adopt the budget as proposed by ACVB.

Most of the other residents who spoke on the issue urged Council to follow Tovo’s lead and dedicate more funds for cultural and heritage marketing.

Steve Sternschein, president of the Red River Merchants Association and owner of Empire Control Room & Garage, told Council he was opposed to the ACVB budget as proposed. “We’d all like to see additional funding for heritage musical tourism in our district and around the city as well,” he said. Sternschein was just one of several speakers asking Council to provide more money to promote heritage tourism so that more tourists would visit the Red River Cultural District.

“The Red River Cultural District is the cornerstone of the live music ecosystem that we have here,” he said. “The venues in the district need help – they need the help of the Council and the city to continue to exist, to continue doing what they’ve been doing the past 20 years. … I hope we can sit down with the ACVB and work out a way to direct more tourism to our district.”

Council Member Greg Casar thanked Sternschein for providing a space for local Latino talent. “I think what you are doing is very important for a lot of young folks finding the kind of music that they want to see in the city,” he said.

Hip-hop artist Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone and Maggie Lea, one of the owners of Cheer Up Charlie’s, also urged Council to find a way to direct more funding toward promotion of the Red River Cultural District.

Photo by Bruce Turner made available through a Creative Commons license.

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