COLLIER COUNTY — Marco museum, Marco hoteliers and other tourism businesses had a big win with Collier County commission Tuesday.
Collier County commissioners voted unanimously against a subcommittee’s recommendation to ween the museums off the tourist tax by 2013.
Coming back from the meeting very pleased was Island attorney and Marco Island Historical Society member Craig Woodward, who helped design the Marco Island Historical Museum currently under construction.
“What was surprising to me was that, while all the museums in the system had citizens in force to support them, there were no speakers for the beach funding present.”
As a result, the commission saw the need to promote tourism to support the local economy and granted the requests to use the beach funds for promotion of tourism, he added.
The museum money would have been redirected to tourism promotion.
Commissioners on Tuesday approved another $2.1 million for marketing this year, but it will come from other sources, including reserves for beach projects.
Commissioner Donna Fiala said there were more people from Marco Island than from any other area of the county.
“The audience had more Marco people in it than I’ve ever seen. About three-quarters of the audience was from Marco Island and I’ll tell you it’s because tourism is so extremely important to Marco Island.”
The county’s museums rely on tourist tax money to cover their operating budget, which last year was about $1.2 million.
A subcommittee of the Tourist Development Council suggested phasing out that financial support beginning in fiscal 2011 to make more money available for marketing.
Speakers turned out in force at Tuesday’s commission meeting to weigh in on recommendations coming from the subcommittee, which was headed up by Murray Hendel, vice chairman of the Tourist Development Council.
Many spoke in favor of continuing to give the county museums tourist tax money. They argued there was no other way to keep their doors open.
It was the presentations by Marco Island Historical Society members, as well as Naples and Everglades City museum backers that led commissioners and members of the tourism industry to understand that the museums are frequented by tourists and that the local data shows most visitors are from out of the county and many from out of the country, Woodward said.
Many in the audience wore green labels on their shirts that said, “I Love Tourism.” One of them was Rick Medwedeff, general manager for the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort and a member of the Tourist Development Council. He urged commissioners to approve more money for tourism marketing.
He favored taking the money from museums and redirecting it to advertising.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “It’s not like we are not in support of museums. I think museums are very important ... But they are not a significant driver of tourism in our county.”
Museum supporters saw it another way. They argued museums and tourism go hand-in-hand, and cited statewide statistics that show almost 75 percent of Florida’s tourists visit museums and participate in a cultural activity.
“Everyone doesn’t sit around in the hotel or go to the beaches,” said Nick Hale, president of the Friends of the Collier County Museum, a volunteer group that supports museums.
“Last month, we had 11 inches of rain and when it rains where do tourists go? Well a lot of them go to the museums,” he said.
The tourist tax comes from a 4 percent charge on hotels and other short-term rentals. Much of the money goes to beaches, but it also supports attractions and events in addition to paying for destination marketing.
The subcommittee making the recommendations was created earlier this year to look at ways to spend the tourist tax more wisely.
Fiala called museums “part of the fabric of our community.”
“If we don’t fund them this way, then we have to raise our taxes and nobody wants to see their taxes raised.”
She added that in addition to listening to the audience, which included Marco hotel managers, Marco Island Chamber of Commerce and others, there was another logic behind using beach renourishment dollars.
“Right now the beaches are in good shape. We’re taking a chance on it, but we’re hoping that FEMA will give us the $8 million reimbursement for (Tropical Storm) Fay.”
Also, she said if the county advertises for more tourism and gets the response that commissioners were told to expect, then more tourism taxes would come in and the beach funds could be replenished.
Woodward said the decisions create a win-win.
More tourists creates more visitors to the museums and the more tourists, the more bed tax revenue earned, which improves funding for museums, he said.
“It is like the old adage - a rising tide floats all boats.”