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Seeking $100M, springs supporters target convention center expansion proposal

Wednesday, February 22, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Fine arts and natural resources advocates are stepping up their involvement with a city task force that will play a large role in shaping how the city allocates the fast-growing pool of revenue from Hotel Occupancy Tax, which totaled about $100 million in 2016.

And the methods used by the two sectors are different because the stakes for one group are a whole lot bigger.

Arts proponents are mostly keeping an eye on the process and looking to protect the 15 percent of the HOT revenue pool that is committed to “cultural arts” by statute. Parks and natural resources proponents, however, hope to push the city’s Visitor Impact Task Force to recommend that City Council direct money away from a proposed expansion of the Austin Convention Center and toward conservation and protection of land near springs and other natural attractions threatened by ongoing land development throughout the city.

The task force was formed by a Council resolution that directs members to study current uses and possible better allocation of the city’s portion of the 15 percent tax levied on stays in local hotel rooms.

State law requires that those funds be used for efforts related to tourism, and the group decided on Feb. 14 that it will deliver its recommendations to Council by the end of May. That is almost two months later than initially requested so the recommendations could be used during Council workshops for next year’s budget.

A regular presence at the meetings has been Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance nonprofit that is dedicated to protecting the Edwards Aquifer and the system of springs connected to it. While promoting area springs as a strong attraction for Austin visitors, Bunch’s rhetoric during the public comment portions of the meetings has taken aim at the convention center effort that has emerged as one of the main possible uses of reallocated HOT revenue.

At the Feb. 14 meeting, he repeated his frequent criticism that representatives from the convention center and the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau have overstated the demand for convention space – and the impact on local hotel business that the expansion would create – as part of a “sales pitch” to gain approval for the project. There are five scenarios for the possible expansion, with the favored approach carrying a price tag of just over $600 million.

“The elephant in the room is the convention center proposal and what revenues might become available if we don’t add convention center capacity that’s not needed and probably wouldn’t be used if it is added,” Bunch said to the Austin Monitor. “There’s a desperate need to get reliable info on the table in front of those people because the ACVB has essentially been using sales pitch information and presenting it as fact.”

Bunch said development throughout the Hill Country is putting pressure on Barton Springs and other attractions, creating the need to secure development rights or conservation easements on up to 20,000 acres in proximity to the aquifer in the next three to five years.

To pay for that effort, the alliance and other pro-springs groups have encouraged Council to commit $100 million for conservation in coming years.

The state law covering use of HOT revenue for venues includes the possibility that tax money can go toward “a tourist development area along an inland waterway” and “a municipal parks and recreation system, or improvements or additions to a parks and recreation system, or an area or facility that is part of a municipal parks and recreation system.” Bunch said he hopes task force Council members will interpret that language to allow using some of the tax money for land conservation.

There’s less at risk for arts groups in the process because their funds are already legally guaranteed. Still, an assortment of 130 arts groups and supporters have loosely coalesced as the Austin Arts Advocacy Coalition so they can stay informed on the proceedings and make sure nothing goes astray to threaten their funding.

Matt Hinsley, executive director of the Austin Classical Guitar Society, said $177,000 in HOT revenue was part of his nonprofit’s nearly $1 million budget last year to fund more than 125 events and education programs throughout Travis County.

With other fine arts and music groups relying on the tax for significant portions of their budgets, A3C has committed to having a representative at each task force meeting so members are up to speed. The coalition has also opted not to weigh in on any HOT allocation issue other than the protection of arts funding.

“We feel it’s important for arts organizations to participate in the process because the discussion around affordability and artists earning a living is an important one,” Hinsley said. “Anything is possible as far as what might happen, but we’re mainly trying to provide oversight of the process for members because we hope that the 15 percent dedicated to cultural arts is maintained.”

Photo by Todd Dwyer [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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