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Debate over convention center, hotel tax funds spreads to Music Commission

Tuesday, November 13, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

A recently created music activism group has been thrown into the fray of the debate – largely playing out in meetings of the new Tourism Commission – over how to spend money the city generates through its roughly $100 million portion of the Hotel Occupancy Tax, and the larger issue of possibly expanding the Austin Convention Center.

Last week’s meeting of the Austin Music Commission featured discussion with Catlin Whitington, a member of the Music Moves Austin activist group and chair of the Tourism Commission, that in part focused on work the group was doing to find dedicated public funding to bolster the city’s commercial music industry.

Pointing out the concerns that members of the local arts community have over attempts to increase music funding in the general cultural arts fund allocated from HOT funds, Commissioner Graham Reynolds asked Whitington if he would be able to reassure the city’s Arts Commission that MMA isn’t targeting cultural arts funding as a source of more commercial music funds.

“I don’t know if I’m in a position to do that right now, quite frankly, because as much as I definitely understand the nuances of that conversation I’d rather not pick a side at this point,” said Whitington, who is also an executive with South by Southwest.

“I think that if we are not looking as a music community at all potential sources of funding we’re doing ourselves a disservice. Personally, I feel a bigger pie is better for everybody, instead of smaller pieces. That should be the goal of any organization that’s trying to work as part of a broader community of creative individuals.”

John Riedie, CEO of Austin Creative Alliance and also a Tourism Commission member, then joined the conversation, pushing for the city to siphon some of the HOT funds annually held in reserve by the convention center, with $26 million scheduled to go into reserve this year.

The debate was an unexpected extension of the often-charged debate that has taken place in meetings of the 11-member Tourism Commission, with Riedie and Whitington among those squaring off over the proposed $600 million convention center expansion that would be funded using HOT money.

State law puts limits on the ways HOT funds can be used, with capped percentages on cultural arts and other uses.

Rather than diverting money away from the cultural arts “bucket,” Riedie argued for removing money from the convention center’s reserve for a $3 million tourism promotion campaign, with $1 million specifically committed to helping Austin musicians touring the country.

With the re-election of Mayor Steve Adler last week, who advocates the expansion as part of his “downtown puzzle” plan, it appears that debate over the ambitious project is going to become a regular component of meetings involving groups in any way connected to HOT funds. Last month’s Tourism Commission meeting saw debate analysis over the promotional budget for Visit Austin – formerly known as the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau – and how much the city’s convention and meetings business contributes to overall tourism.

In making his case to the Music Commission, Riedie focused on a proposal to emblazon the vans of touring Austin musicians with city-sponsored, pro-Austin advertising aimed at spreading the city’s message across the country.

“We’re starting to roll out ideas which we’ll be bringing to the public soon,” he said. “But think, for example, if our promotion bucket was grown by $3 million and $1 million of that was spent on rolling billboards that were all over the country, 30 of them. What they really are, are band vans directing people to Austin, and also emblazoned with the name of the band. We’ve got a legal opinion that that definitely fits under the state law.”

Photo by Gino made available through a Creative Commons license.

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