Eyeing hotel tax dollars, Music Commission signs on to support convention center
Monday, September 16, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki
With City Council set to consider two items on Thursday related to the proposed expansion of the Austin Convention Center, the Austin Music Commission voted last week to support the plan, which is projected to cost more than $1 billion from the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax funds.
At the 7-2 vote, commission members Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone and Anne-Charlotte Patterson voted against the show of support for the Council vote in May that precipitated a handful of recent resolutions involving allocation and taxation amounts for the hotel tax.
Much of the discussion on the matter centered around proposed new funding for the commercial music industry – expected to start at just over $3 million annually – that could flow from the hotel tax.
Earlier this summer, Council voted to increase the tax on guest stays at local hotels by 2 percentage points to 17 percent, the maximum allowed under state law. That additional levy will initially be used to increase the payoff of existing debt from the most recent expansion of the convention center, a move that would free up some General Fund dollars currently used for debt relief that could be used for the music industry and to increase funding for historic preservation.
Rebecca Reynolds, head of Austin’s Music Venue Alliance, said that the new funding for local music is critical to provide money for live music venues and musicians at risk of being priced out of the city. With that funding tied to the convention center expansion as a whole, she said musicians and those supporting local music are lining up to defeat a November ballot measure that could force the city to get voter approval for ambitious expansions of the facility.
“The only way we’re going to get it out of that source is to agree to this broader plan that helps the entire community,” she said. “MVA does support updating and renovating the convention center because we believe Austin deserves it, and the one that we have doesn’t serve our needs and doesn’t reflect who we are as a city at this time.”
Local attorney Fred Lewis, a member of the group Unconventional Austin that launched the November initiative known as Proposal B, said that the city could have previously provided money to local music without involving the convention center. He said the commission should have asked Council to change wording in the items up for consideration on Thursday to guarantee local music funding.
“Whenever you see a convoluted ordinance, that is a bad sign because you can’t write things so that people understand them. My recommendation is that you support this ordinance, but that you change it so that it does what you want, and that’s to fund music,” he said. “They could give you the money now because they can see that it can come out of general tourism. … Maybe you should ask why they haven’t given you that except until it was six weeks before an election.”
The proposed expansion was in part the result of recommendations from 2017’s Visitors Impact Task Force, a group of residents and tourism-related professionals convened to look for the best ways to use the city’s fast-growing pool of hotel tax revenue.
The two Music Commission members – Mahone and Gavin Garcia – who sat on that task force had different views on the need for the expansion and the community benefits forecast by supporters such as Mayor Steve Adler.
Mahone said he came away from the group feeling disenchanted and skeptical of the city’s ability to deliver on its promises.
“I chose to be on the Visitor Impact Task Force because there was no one else black in that group, but I regret going along,” he said.
“I felt like every time I had a chance to speak up for the people that I represent, and spoke as often as I could and made recommendations toward what would be put to City Council, but when it was time to make the recommendations they chose to leave me out of that process. I was apologized to, but that represents Austin in a nutshell for me as a black person, and I have no faith in their points about delivering anything to underrepresented groups that have been historically neglected.”
Photo by Katie Haugland Bowen made available through a Creative Commons license.
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