I rarely recommend people watch government meetings — unless maybe they have insomnia or a fondness for self-flagellation.
But if you want to understand how feverishly the tourism lobby in this community works to keep a stranglehold on politics and politicians in Central Florida, I have one for you to watch.
It was the second-to-last meeting of Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings’ task force on hotel taxes. At least it was supposed to be the second-to-last meeting.
For weeks, members had listened to sales pitches for investing billions of tax dollars in big, shiny buildings — a convention center, arena, arts center and football stadium.
Editorial: Tourist-tax task force gets one last chance to go bold before it goes home
Taxpayers have already spent billions on these same venues. One of them, the convention center, is already 7 million square feet and sometimes has to offer visiting groups massive rental discounts just to keep the mammoth, deficit-running complex partially occupied.
And some task force members know this community has other needs, including affordable housing and major improvements to the region’s lackluster transit system. Those members were eager to discuss the possibility of using just a portion of this massive pot of hotel taxes — $336 million last year alone — to address all that.
But those members were told to cool their jets. Just listen to the pitches for the big buildings first, they were told. Then they could discuss the more pressing issues.
So those members did as they were told. They patiently listened to requests to give the convention center another $700 million, Camping World Stadium another $800 million, the Amway Center another $250 million and $145 million more to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
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There were also requests from lots of smaller, grassroots groups. But task force members were instructed to use a ranking method designed to ensure that the big, shiny buildings would come out on top — as long as the pitchmen claimed their construction projects would beef up tourism and our local economy.
There was little in the way of skepticism. No one bothered, for instance, to consult the many experts who question the value of dumping money into convention centers when the world is moving away from in-person meetings. Or to listen to the author who literally wrote a book about how Orange County’s last convention center expansion never delivered what it promised.
$2 billion? $3 billion? Will it ever be enough for Orange County Convention Center?
Nor did anyone bother to ask this: If spending money on convention centers and sports venues really improves an economy, then why does our community — which has already sunk billions into those things — often rank dead last among America’s 50 largest metro regions when it comes to median wages?
The entire county-devised ranking process was an exercise in preserving the status quo.
Still, for the handful of members who cared about other investments — in transit, housing and more — the tradeoff was supposed to be the final meeting when they could also talk about addressing those issues as well.
But at the end of the group’s June meeting — after task force members had dutifully endorsed more money for all the big buildings — the tourism lobby pounced, trying to cancel the final meeting altogether.
“What is the purpose of having that conversation?” asked SeaWorld’s appointee, former state Rep. Rene Plasencia.
Universal Orlando’s appointee, Jay Galbraith, dutifully jumped in. “Our work here is done,” he said, offering to make a motion to adjourn.
It went on and on like that with appointees from the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association also suggesting the last meeting, scheduled for this coming Monday, wasn’t needed. The big-building boosters had gotten what they wanted. It was time to move on.
And the tourism lobby received an assist from the most influential voice in the room — Mayor Demings himself, who said he never intended for this task force to shake up the status quo. “What is being recommended,” he told those worried about housing and transit, “is somewhat outside, if not clearly outside, of the scope of what you were asked to do.”
The other members were floored. They’d played by the rules. They’d patiently listened to all the high-dollar, big-building requests because they’d been told they could discuss true community needs later on. Yet now the tourism lobby was pushing to nix that with the mayor seemingly in their corner.
The mayor and tourism operatives argued that, since only state legislators can tweak the laws that control how hotel taxes can be spent, county-level leaders needn’t concern themselves with such things.
Their argument was a red herring.
First of all, task force member Eric Gray, the director of the Christian Service Center, noted there were plenty of ways Orange County could spend money on desperately needed transportation fixes within the existing law — none of which the task force even considered. He’s right.
Second, the way to get state lawmakers to change the law to allow for more spending flexibility is for local leaders to ask. That’s what other county officials did while Orange County commissioners twiddled their thumbs.
“If we don’t ask … to expand the uses, nobody will,” said Jane Healy, a co-chair of the task force and former executive with the Orlando Sentinel.
One other member, small-business owner Stephen Facella, noted that if the task force was never going to be allowed to discuss other, desperately needed investments in this community, “then this entire thing was unnecessary.”
Finally, Gray, who works on the front lines of metro Orlando’s poverty crisis, reminded the group that one in every six Central Floridians lives and works in poverty and that half work in jobs that pay less than $32,000, stressing “this is the only major city in America where that’s the case.”
That is the economy created by taxpayer-subsidized tourism.
Orlando: 50th out of 50 in wages with costs-of-living on the rise | Commentary
Gray urged the group to think about the citizens who live here and do the back-breaking work to make the economy run. And audience members — who’d been told they couldn’t address the task force until after members had voted on the big-buildings’ requests — applauded.
Gray’s pleas prevailed. Of the 22 members who voted, only seven opposed holding the final meeting, including representatives of the hoteliers, attractions and Orlando Economic Partnership.
You don’t have to take my word for all this. If you’re a glutton for wonky punishment, watch the meeting for yourself at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8dIvt1Eg2M
You can even skip the first three hours and just watch the final 30 minutes, starting at 2 hours and 49 minutes when the tourism lobby tried to derail efforts to help the community.
Because I imagine they’ll try again Monday.
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