NAPLES — Collier County doesn't have year-round marketing to lure tourists.
There isn't enough money set aside for it from the county's 4 percent tourist tax, charged on hotels and other vacation rentals. As a result, there's paid advertising only about five months out of the year to tout the destination.
But that could change under a plan championed by County Manager Leo Ochs.
The plan doesn't include a tax hike, which local hoteliers have fought for years. Instead, it would change the way the tax is divvied up, increasing the amount going toward promoting tourism and putting sand back on the beaches.
In addition to paying for tourism advertising and beach renourishment, the tourist tax — often called the "bed tax" — supports local museums and pays for beach park projects.
The plan supported by Ochs would cut the percentages of the tax going to beach park projects and county museums, freeing up more money for promotion and sand.
County commissioners will consider the plan later this month. It would change the tax split this way:
■ Cut the amount going to beach park projects from 16.5 percent to 4.3 percent.
■ Up the amount going to tourism promotion from 25 percent to 35.1 percent.
■ Up the amount going to beach renourishment from 33.5 percent to 37 percent.
■ Cut the amount going to county-owned museums from 11 percent to 9.6 percent.
"The whole thing is difficult because it's a balancing act. Balance doesn't mean 50/50. We need to be fair to everyone," said Mike Reagen, president and CEO of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce. "We need to keep our hospitality industry as strong as we can and obviously at the same time our beaches are terribly important."
In April 2011, a special subcommittee of the county's Tourist Development Council — an advisory board to county commissioners — began looking at ways to reallocate the tax to support a stronger, year-round marketing and promotion effort.
The subcommittee came up with 11 recommendations, which it then took to various "stakeholder groups" in the community for consideration. Those groups included the Naples, Marco Island and Everglades chambers of commerce, the Friends of the Collier County Museum and the Collier County Hotel & Lodging Association.
After reviewing the recommendations and input from outside groups, Ochs directed his staff to come up with ideas. The plan he's now pushing combines the subcommittee's recommendations with those of county staff. The Tourist Development Council (TDC) voted unanimously to support that combined plan at its Jan. 28 meeting.
"I think we've come up with a good blend of recommendations that gets us very close to where the TDC had suggested we get and certainly would help us a great deal in having a more robust, year-round marketing campaign," said Jack Wert, Collier County's tourism director.
The subcommittee's proposal would have increased the share going to tourism promotion to 45 percent, about 10 percent more than what Ochs is recommending.
County commissioners are slated to consider the reallocation plan Feb. 26.
If commissioners decide to make changes in how tourist taxes are divided, those changes wouldn't happen right away and any changes in the percentage users get would require a supermajority vote of four out of the five commissioners. That could be a big hurdle to overcome.
"That's a challenge," Wert said. "I'm hopeful."
Commissioner Tom Henning, who sits on the Tourist Development Council, said at the council's last meeting that he thought a plan recommended by the county manager would carry more weight with commissioners than one coming from the subcommittee.
It would be important, he said, to make sure commissioners understand the benefits of boosting advertising. Research done by the county's marketing consultant shows every dollar invested in advertising and promotion returns nearly $41 in direct visitor spending in Collier.
"It's plain and simple. I've seen it. It works and everybody has said over and over all ships rise when more money is put to promotion," Henning said.
The recommended plan would generate another $1.9 million for tourism marketing, increasing the marketing budget to nearly $4 million a year. It would add $500,000 for beach renourishment, growing the annual allocation to $3 million.
As part of the plan, staff has recommended a one-time withdrawal of $500,000 from an emergency advertising fund to support beach renourishment, pass maintenance projects and/or supplemental marketing. The account, used only when there's a disaster, has $1 million in it. If that amount dropped below $500,000, it would be boosted back up with money from the county's general fund under the county manager's proposal.
Under the plan, if there is a financial shortfall for county-owned museums or beach park projects, the county's general fund, which receives property tax dollars, would be used as a backstop. Museums would get $200,000 less a year, while beach projects would lose $1.75 million a year based on the proposal.
The special committee recommended county-owned museums be weaned off the tourist tax entirely over the next five years, but Ochs didn't support the idea.
The county's museums rely on tourist tax money to cover the operating budget. They're getting about $1.58 million annually from the tax, which generates more than $14 million a year.
Through the years, county museums have faced repeated threats of losing their share of the tourist tax. In 2009, county commissioners rejected another subcommittee's recommendation to cut off funding to museums by 2013 as a way to free up more money for marketing.
Most counties don't use the tourist tax to pay for museums, Wert said.
Collier County Museum Director Ron Jamro said he didn't know the details of the reallocation plan backed by Ochs, so he couldn't comment on specifics.
"I've seen this so many times and there have been so many reinventions of it," he said. "So I would prefer to sit and see what the final proposal truly is. It's just kind of a wait-and-see position."
In developing the latest reallocation plan, a few suggestions have been made about how county museums could raise more money on their own, including charging admission to nonresidents, applying for grants and hosting major fundraisers every year.
"These are major undertakings," Jamro said.
Since county museums have been getting tourist tax money, he said, they've expanded, growing in number from two to five. Jamro said he's not sure if that would have happened if the museums would have kept relying on the general taxpayer-supported county budget to support operations, or if their share of the tourist tax had been sliced.
"I'm concerned about the museums every day," he said. "I have been for a long time."