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For historic grants program, use-it-or-lose-it process leaves dollars unspent

Thursday, January 26, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Historic sites around Austin could be on the receiving end of money from the city’s fast-growing Hotel Occupancy Tax if the advisory body formed to examine how the tax revenue is allocated recommends that City Council relax the application process.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Visitor Impact Task Force, members learned that a portion of the several hundred thousand dollars dedicated to the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau’s heritage grants program each year goes unused because not enough restoration projects meet the criteria, which some feel are too stringent.

Those unused dollars, which are intended to fund projects to improve or maintain historic attractions, are funneled back into ACVB’s general fund each year instead of rolling over to the next year to serve additional projects that might qualify.

Complaints about the heritage grants process include the cap of $47,000 per project, the inability to roll over unused dollars, the exclusion of historic churches from consideration for funding and the tight time restrictions on spending the dollars, given that some ambitious renovation projects can have extended timelines.

The grant process is under review and could be targeted for revision as part of the city’s effort to best use HOT tax revenue, which was projected at $100 million last year and is growing by double digits as Austin’s hotel and tourism business continues to boom. Currently, almost 21 percent of the city’s share of HOT tax revenue goes to fund ACVB.

“The biggest thing we learned is that ACVB has a hard time spending all of the amount that’s allocated each year because of the guidelines on how projects are considered,” said James Russell, chair of the 18-member task force. “The parameters were placed on them by the city, and if we want to make it easier to spend this money, then we need to relax the parameters on those dollars.”

ACVB distributes the heritage grants in the spring and fall, with $500,000 allocated for 2017. The calendar for the spring cycle was published on Monday, with a March 20 application deadline.

Steve Genovesi, ACVB’s senior vice president of sales and services, told task force members at Tuesday’s meeting how the current application and review process is structured and highlighted why otherwise beneficial projects were denied funding.

Regular recipients of heritage grant funding include the Paramount Theatre, Stateside Theatre and French Legation, with some recent projects for other sites getting disqualified due to a requirement to get three contractor bids or because efforts to improve the grounds of a property didn’t have enough relevance to efforts to enhance tourism.

Any recommendations on changes to the heritage grant program would be part of the task force’s final report to Council, which is expected by April 1 for inclusion in the next round of budget workshops.

Genovesi said changes in grant review guidelines would help increase the number of recipients and that increased outreach and education efforts going forward would likely increase the applicant pool.

“Usually it’s a volunteer handling the application for a park or some other site, and if they have questions, we need to do a better job helping them answer those questions,” he said, adding that if ACVB could access a database of eligible sites provided by the city’s Planning Department, it would help it reach more possible applicants.

“The biggest thing is getting the word out,” he said. “Because everyone has the same goal of getting more applications in.”

Photo by Jericho made available through a Creative Commons license.

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