A 6-1 Manatee County Commission decision last Tuesday to give $250,000 to the Ringling International Arts Festival has Manatee tourism promoters concerned that Manatee tax dollars will boost Sarasota’s bottom line.
Half of the funds will come from Manatee County coffers while the remaining $125,000 will come from county tourist tax reserve funds usually earmarked for tourism marketing, to rebuild consumer confidence after a hurricane or other disaster.
The tourist tax is charged to guests by hotels, motels, condos and other accommodations providers.
The Manatee County Tourist Development Council (TDC), an advisory board to the Manatee County Commission, voted 5-4 to recommend the expenditure last Monday, with much dissent.
The $125,000 should be used to promote Manatee County hoteliers who collect the tourist tax that produces the funds, Bradenton beach hotelier and TDC member Barbara Rodocker said.
Manatee hoteliers would have to sell 25,000 hotel room nights at $100 a night to produce $125,000 in tourist tax revenue, Bradenton Beach hotelier and TDC member David Teitelbaum said.
Manatee County arts groups need funds too, TDC member Vernon DeSear reminded colleagues.
After years of the TDC denying similar requests, the Manatee County Commission set a precedent for other event promoters to request tourist tax funds, County Commissioner and former TDC Chairman Joe McClash said.
“The TDC has shied away from funding other events,” he said. “It’s only fair to entertain other requests for funds.”
Commissioners, however, did not consider a request from the 71-year-old DeSoto Heritage Festival – expected to produce the largest parade in the southeast U.S. in 2010 – asking promoters to return later. DeSoto spokesman Gus Sokos, who was referred to the commission by the TDC on Monday, requested $25,000, saying new rules require a $35,000 expenditure to erect fences along the parade route.
“I don’t know how we can say ‘no’ to something like this when we’ve just given money to an organization that’s not even in our county,” said Commissioner Donna Hayes, who will serve as commission chair in 2010.
The TDC turned down DeSoto’s request because it is primarily a community event that does not attract people from elsewhere, Commissioner Carol Whitmore said, recommending that the county grant the request from other funds.
McClash disagreed, saying the event routinely attracts out of state visitors, marching bands and Spanish dignitaries.
The Ringling Arts Festival also will attract visitors from far and wide, according to organizer and former state Sen. John McKay.
The event is expected to spin off “fringe festivals,” he said, adding that former Florida first lady Rhea Chiles, an Anna Maria Island arts activist, already has opened dialogue about staging an unspecified event on the Island during the festival.
A Riverfest in Bradenton also is being discussed, Whitmore said.
The Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. has a $50 million impact in its community, “which we can realize in five to seven years with your support,” McKay told commissioners.
“I support the arts, but we just have so many organizations in Manatee County that need assistance… I can’t support this expenditure in another county,” said Hayes, who cast the lone dissenting commission vote. “I would hope you would pursue something firm on the Island and along the riverfront if this does pass.”
Despite reservations, McClash voted for the expenditure, saying it was a one-time expense, and asking that economic benefits to Manatee County be tracked.
The event was listed on the commission agenda as a one-time contribution, but promoters can return for more funding if they can demonstrate revenue flowing to Manatee County, according to the proposal approved by commissioners.
“If the contribution produces an acceptable and documentable return on investment in the form of hotel occupancy, the festival could request another contribution next year,” the proposal states.
The proposal makes Manatee County’s contribution contingent on Ringling receiving another $250,000 from the Sarasota County Commission, which will consider the issue in coming weeks. McKay said he also will request $100,000 each from the cities of Bradenton and Sarasota.
Another stipulation requires that promotional materials for the festival will provide equal billing for Manatee County and its municipalities, echoing a 70-year-old grudge stemming from Sarasota’s getting top billing on the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport sign.