Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday November 26th 2014

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Into The Sunshine

Battle for The Control of Tourism Taxes
by Rick Outzen

The control over Escambia County’s tourism marketing and its $5.5 million is being moved out of the Greater Pensacola Chamber. The Board of County Commissioners has made that clear, and the chamber’s executive committee has agreed to the move.

The local hotel owners, Perdido Key Chamber and Pensacola Sports Association have proposed a new non-profit corporation, Visit Pensacola, Inc., to handle tourism marketing. However, few details have been revealed to the public and those details have caused concern in the African-American and arts communities.

And as Commissioner Chairman Gene Valentino said at the Sept. 16 commission meeting—“The devil is in the details.”

What has been proposed is a nine-member board that has representatives from the hotels, condominiums, Greater Pensacola Chamber, Perdido Key Chamber, Pensacola Sports Association, Arts, Culture, Entertainment, Inc., City of Pensacola and Escambia County. The ninth member is at-large, which the hotel owners have designated to be an African-American for the next two years.

How independent will Visit Pensacola be? According to the president of ACE, David Bear, his group was told by Ron Ellington, the paid lobbyist for the hotels, that the hoteliers wanted their seat to go to banker Blaise Adams. Commissioner May has been told that filmmaker Robin Reshard has been chosen to be the at-large seat.

Bear and May have expressed their concerns about the structure of Visit Pensacola and the process of how it has been brought forward to the county. The first public document that was presented to the BCC was a PowerPoint presentation given by Ellington at the Sept. 12 Committee of the Whole meeting.

Rush For Approval
On Monday, Sept. 16, Ellington delivered at 5 p.m. to the county the bylaws, transition plan with the chamber and business plan for Visit Pensacola, Inc. The commissioners were holding a public forum at the time and had only 15 minutes to review the documents before their regular meeting was called to order.

While the commissioners each voiced their support for moving tourism out from under the chamber, they weren’t happy about being rushed. Commission Chairman Gene Valentino was clearly frustrated.

He asked, “Do you think you can come in here at the 11th hour and just hijack millions of dollars away from us and we rubber stamp it without doing our fiduciary responsibility and making sure it’s being allocated appropriately?”

Commissioners Wilson Robertson and Grover Robinson argued to approve the transfer to Visit Pensacola, Inc. They had no issues with the structure and few concerns about the documents presented by Ellington.

However, Commissioners Steven Barry and Lumon May agreed with Valentino. Barry argued that the board had a fiduciary responsibility to fully review the documents before they agreed to give Visit Pensacola $5.5 million.

May expressed concern over the lack of African-American inclusion on the board and the lack of a permanent seat.

“I sit on this board because the federal courts dictated that this county must have a minority district,” said May. “Minorities are on boards throughout this county. I can’t understand why, in 2013, we’re having this fight.”

By a 3-2 vote, with Robertson and Robinson voting in the negative, the motion to table discussion of the transfer of tourism marketing to Visit Pensacola passed. The discussion will renew on Sept. 24.

Meanwhile, expect the commissioners to be lobbied heavily.

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Tale of Two Bylaws

Ron Ellington drafted on July 10 a set of bylaws for Visit Pensacola that he shared with the Greater Pensacola Chamber officials. The final set delivered to the county commission on Sept. 16 is significantly different. .

Mission: July 10 version: To develop, administer and promote tourism through the performance of general activities for the development and promotion of tourism and convention activities in Escambia County.

Sept. 16 version: To develop, administer and promote tourism through the performance of general activities that increase the number of leisure and convention overnight guests, Tourism Development Tax (TDT), other tax collection including Local Option Sales Tax, and related product and services sales in Escambia County.

Analysis:  The change clearly defines the mission for the benefit of hotels and condominiums.

Membership: The July 10 draft had only seven classes, which included the Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce. The Sept. 16 version has eight classes, replacing the beach chamber with Arts, Culture, Entertainment and adding an At-Large seat. The new version also requires that new classes and/or members be added in pairs and one must be a bed tax collector.
Analysis: Requiring additional members be added in pairs makes sure the lodging industry controls the board.

Board Removal for Cause: The July 10 version didn’t have this section. The new version says, “Any member who supports a competing TDT budget request shall constitute a conflict of interest and its Class, Member and Board seat shall be automatically and immediately terminated if the Class Member fails to withdraw its support of that competing budget request within 10 days of being notified in writing of the conflict of interest.”

Analysis: ACE has asked for a portion of the 2013 budget surplus for a cultural arts festival. This section could get them kicked off the board.

Board of Directors: The new version mandates that all directors advance the goals and objectives of Visit Pensacola. No director can support a competing request of TDT dollars.

July 10 version gave the lodging industry only one seat. The Sept. 16 version gives them two seats.
Analysis: It’s not difficult to see where this is going.