Council approves lodging tax funding list without chamber’s Visitor Center money

Councilmembers focused on whether it was the right use of funding and whether spending the money on the center was a good use of money designed to put “heads in beds” in local hotels.

After an hour-long discussion about lodging fund tax proposal from the Chamber of Commerce, the City Council on Monday pulled the proposal for further review but approved for funding all of the other projects on the list.

Monday’s meeting was a follow-up to an earlier Committee of the Whole meeting in which the council tabled for additional information, the annual Lodging Tax funds, collected through a 1 percent tax on local hotels, motels, RV parks and other facilities. This year, the city’s Lodging Tax Advisory Committee – which was made up of a member of the council (who has since retied), a member of the Chamber of Commerce board, a member of the city administration and two representatives from local hotels – recommend 12 projects for a total of $217,000.

The council had budgeted $265,000 for the fund.

The main discussion centered on a $75,000 request from the chamber to be used for the Visitors Center.

Visitor centers are a legal use of the lodging tax funding and last year, the chamber received $55,000 of the Lodging Tax money for the Visitors Center, according to chamber President Vicky Baxter. The additional money this year was to pay salaries for the people staffing it.

Baxter said the money accounts for about 75 percent of the Visitors Center’s budget.

But councilmembers seemed more focused on whether it was the right use of funding and whether spending the money on the center was a good use of money designed to put “heads in beds” in local hotels.

Several councilmembers also questioned whether the chamber’s strategy was effective and said they want to see fewer printed materials in racks around the state and a larger focus on electronic and social media outreach.

As part of the original recommendation, the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee also encouraged the chamber to switch to electronic media.

“I don’t think we’re getting the right bang for our dollar of it,” Councilman Don Persson said of the center, adding that he thought it was important to develop the city’s new marketing campaign – an approved use of $50,000 of the funding – before the chamber did its marketing push. “Before we give them $75,000 we need to have this plan in place.”

Persson also wondered if putting pamphlets in “backwater places” around the state really helped generate tourists in Renton in the modern age.

“That’s not the way to be marketing our city,” he said. “We’re high tech.”

Councilman Ed Prince agreed, saying that giving the chamber money to do “the same old thing” is not something he wants to do.

Board President Randy Corman said while he too was in favor of asking the chamber to “step up” and “modernize” what they are doing, he worried that in a year when the city and the council wants to focus on the downtown not giving money to the Visitors Center “seems counterproductive.”

“How is cutting the chamber’s budget helping?” he asked, adding that he did not want to “pull the rug out from under our efforts.”

Councilman Armondo Pavone, who owns a business downtown, reminded Corman that this was not the chamber’s budget but just the visitors center.

Persson, Prince and Pavone all continued to question if the money actually brought people to the city and said they were worried about “rubber stamping” a project that had received money in the past just because it had received money in the past.

Councilman Ryan McIrvin also said the results were what mattered.

Complicating the matter was the late start to this year’s process and the fact that the councilmember who served on the committee was no longer on the council, making it difficult for current members to get a sense of what the discussions were. This year, Pavone replaced Marcie Palmer on the committee.

Members of the administration and council said they were not entirely sure why last year’s process started late, but promised earlier discussions this year.

Because several of the projects on the list need to know if the money would be available in order to begin their planning, the council opted to move for approval all of the recommended projects except the Visitors Center.

The council is asking the chamber for further details and plans to reconvene the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee – this time with Pavone – to re-review the application.

“I’m happy to say ‘come back with a better plan and go back to LTAC,’” Prince said.

Following the decision, Corman reiterated that the council was not turning down the chamber’s money but simply wanting to take a closer look.

“I think it’s a good solution and I think the message will be loud and clear,” he said. “Every dollar is important and the council takes it seriously.”

Baxter said Tuesday that she will be meeting with the staff and council this week in an attempt to find out exactly what they are looking for. She also said that the chamber is moving toward a more electronic-based marketing platform, including a new App for smartphones that is in development. The chamber also debuted a new website last year that is more visitor-based than member-based, a change from their previous site.

She also said that despite the council’s approval of the money for at least 10 years, she said the chamber did not view the grant as an “entitlement“ but maybe an “expectation” in their planning purposes.

But Baxter said she was committed to working with the council so the money can be released to the chamber as soon as possible so they can move forward on commitments they’d made that uses the money.

“I think we all want what’s best for Renton,” she said.