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Orange County, Florida Wants $50 million More for an
Already Cash Strapped Convention Center

By Scott Maxwell, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Oct. 28, 2009--Someone sent me a note the other day that, at first, made me laugh.

It said Orange County was planning to spend an additional $50 million on its already mammoth convention center.

The idea seemed silly.

We are in the midst of a recession, after all.

The county just had to raid its reserves and rely upon stimulus money to patch together its budget. It left more than 300 positions unfilled and postponed park projects and an expansion at the jail.

Why, news just broke that the convention center's finances are in such bad shape that taxpayers are going to have to bail the center out of a record deficit -- somewhere around $17 million this past year alone.

And yet the county wants to pour another $50 million in the center?

Yes.

It's not the kind of thing Rich Crotty talks about too much when he talks about making hard decisions during lean times. But tucked inside the county's budget are lines that show taxpayers will spend $10 million more on the center this year and next, plus $15 million for the two consecutive years after that.

This is for things like roof repairs, signage, air-conditioning and security upgrades at the 7-million-square-foot building.

That is in addition to the $1.5 billion worth of bond payments owed over the next 24 years.

All for a monstrosity of a building that is seeing attendance dwindle and fewer shows booked.

Not too impressive for a building and industry that we were told was recession-proof.

Yes, recession-proof.

That was the con job center boosters perpetrated on this community 10 years ago when they managed to persuade county commissioners to spend $750 million on the latest expansion.

In making her sales pitch back then, former county chairman Linda Chapin told us: "In tough economic times it is very easy for a family to cancel its discretionary vacation. But conventions are booked sometimes a decade in advance -- they go on."

Except, it turns out, sometimes they don't.

The latest projection has convention execs hoping for 200 shows this next year, down from about 250 two years prior.

Even this newspaper got into the sell job back in 1998, parroting the industry's talking points, writing in a news story: "Even if the economy is falling apart, companies cannot afford to stay away from conventions ..."

Except, it turns out, they can.

Attendance dropped 12 percent last year, according to convention officials.

If you need proof, check out our half-empty hotels. (And actually, the latest research from Smith Travel shows they were more than half-empty.)

Now, none of this is to say that Central Florida doesn't have more people coming here than we would without one of the world's largest convention centers. Or that Orange County doesn't need to spend money to keep the center looking good and running smoothly.

But it's worth looking beyond the rosy sales pitches to see whether we actually got the return we were promised on our tax dollars. (It sure doesn't look like it.)

And whether the costs were even higher than expected. (Yes.)

It's not surprising county commissioners weren't more skeptical at the time.

After all, the money we're talking about for the center comes from hotel taxes -- a revenue stream that local leaders have always treated like Monopoly money. The room taxes are paid mostly by out-of-towners who can't vote them out of office.

And state law largely prohibits hotel taxes from being spent on things such as schools and cops.

Local politicians love that restriction. It allows them to pour billions of dollars into sports stadiums and convention centers with a wink, a smile and a shrug, saying: "Well, we can't spend it on schools anyway."

The laws need to be changed to allow the money to be spent on things local residents truly need -- the way other tourism communities do.

But, on the heels of the "Phase 5" expansion, let me give you one more reason to focus on the center's current financial woes: "Phase 6."

That's right, the next expansion.

Admittedly you'd be hard-pressed to find a county official today who's willing to talk about it. But there's land set aside. And a few years back, when everyone was fat and happy, convention boosters talked about the day when 7 million square feet just wouldn't suffice.

One day, they will make that pitch.

And when they do, it will be worth remembering that few places are recession proof.

Even Fantasyland.

Scott Maxwell can be reached at smaxwell@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-6141.

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Copyright (c) 2009, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

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