Parks conservancies making their case for hotel tax dollars
Tuesday, March 7, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki
Local parks advocates are stepping up their efforts to direct revenue from the city’s fast-growing Hotel Occupancy Tax toward the long-term capital needs of parks and recreation facilities throughout Austin.
Projects such as a master plan for Barton Springs as well as ambitious renovations of the spring’s historic bath house and the Beverly S. Sheffield Education Center – each of which will cost millions of dollars – are some of the more prominent needs that members of local parks conservancy groups have started lobbying for. The group is made up of representatives of the Barton Springs Conservancy, Hill Country Conservancy, Shoal Creek Conservancy, Austin Parks Foundation, the Trail Foundation and the Friends of Umlauf Sculpture Garden.
The collective has joined other parks and natural resources supporters in pushing the city’s Visitor Impact Task Force to recommend that City Council take steps to steer money from the 15 percent tax levied on local hotel guests toward efforts to improve public attractions enjoyed by tourists. State and city statutes require that HOT revenue be utilized for efforts to support and increase tourism, including historic preservation efforts, support for the arts and funding for convention center and other venue enhancements.
“These publicly owned assets will generate tourism and we feel are eligible for funding under the (Hotel Occupancy Tax) guidelines,” said Ted Siff, president of the board of the Shoal Creek Conservancy and one of the leaders of the effort.
“There are also huge capital needs to make them better for tourists,” he said. “Many of these are historic assets, but thus far the city attorney has been ambivalent on that issue. We think the charge of the task force is to make recommendations regardless of the current legal allowances.”
Siff said the group will spend this month putting together a master list of capital improvements for parks throughout the Austin area and will present its findings to the task force before its members create a set of recommendations for HOT revenue allocation that will be used in creating the next city budget.
While some parks advocates have targeted big-ticket proposals like plans for expanding the Austin Convention Center as overly ambitious and unnecessary, Siff said his group is not opposing any of the current ways HOT revenue is allocated.
Mike Cannatti, board president of the Barton Springs Conservancy, said HOT revenue directed to parks projects would help bolster fundraising efforts by his group and others to meet the long-term needs of those facilities. He said a mix of public and private dollars will be necessary to pay for the $3 million bath house renovation and the visitor center work that will cost up to $5.5 million to complete.
Cannatti said the biggest task before him and other conservancy members is making it clear to task force members that provisions in the state and city regulations will allow HOT revenue, which was expected to cross the $100 million threshold for the current budget year, to be used for parks-related capital improvements.
“These needs seem ideally suited for HOT money, which could be important as we try to match public and private dollars,” he said. “We’ve watched the members of the task force as they’ve taken in a lot of information on the funds and how they can be used. It’ll be up to us to show them how these pressing needs meet all the requirements while looking at other ways the state law allows the funds to be used.”
Photo by Todd Dwyer [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
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