Alachua Co. sets March public hearing on tourism tax increase


Published: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 12:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 12:24 p.m.

After more than four years of intermittent talks and plans that came and went, the Alachua County Commission has scheduled a public hearing on a potential two-cent increase in the county's tourism tax for March 2.

But commissioners are not expected to vote until June on what projects the money generated by the tourist - or bed - tax would fund.

During about two and a half hours of discussion and debate Tuesday, the five county commissioners all said they supported pledging at least some of the money raised from from the tax toward the city of Newberry's long-discussed plans for Nations Baseball Park: a 16-field youth baseball complex planned to attract teams from other areas of Florida and out-of-state to tournaments in Alachua County.

That complex, a regional offshoot of Cooperstown Dreams Park in New York, appeared to be the only project in line for any tourism development tax money until late 2009, when commissioners opened up the process for other proposals.

Now county commissioners have said they want to pledge at least some of the revenue to the Newberry baseball complex, but some commissioners would like to put part of the money toward one or more of four other projects. Those are a county proposal for a 50,000-square-foot arena/coliseum at the future fairgrounds; a Gainesville plan for a 40,000- to 45,000-square-foot conference center downtown; a 22,600-square-foot expansion of Gainesville's Martin Luther King Jr. Sports Complex; and the Cade Museum for Innovation and Invention in Gainesville's Depot Park.

The tourist development - or bed - tax is added to hotel and motel bills and stays of six months or less at rental properties, including campgrounds and condominiums. The current rate is three cents on the dollar. The increase under consideration would raise it to five cents.

By state law the money raised by the tax has to fund projects or programs that promote tourism or draw overnight visits to a county. In a letter to the County Commission, a group of Gainesville area hotel general managers said Newberry's baseball complex had the best potential to bring business to local hotels. But, they opposed any potential second phase of the project if it included construction of dorms or apartments.

At one point Tuesday, Commissioner Mike Byerly voted against six separate motions, including some he had made, to show his opposition to the majority's decision to remove the Cade Museum from any future consideration - even before gathering the additional details on it he sought.

"If this is not going to be a collaborative process, I'm off the train," Byerly said.

His vote was key because the County Commission, under state law, will need four votes to increase the tourism development tax by two cents and to add any construction projects to the county's tourism development plan.

To gain Byerly's support moving forward, the commission added the Cade Museum back to the list of projects under consideration.

The county plans to cap the amount of tourism development money that goes to the Newberry project, if it is selected, at no more than $7 million. If the full two cents were pledged to the Newberry project, an amount that looks unlikely based on Tuesday's discussion, it is projected the baseball complex could be paid off in eight to 10 years. If revenue from one cent - or half of the proposed increase were used - it could take at least 20 years to pay off the stadium.

County commissioners also pushed Newberry officials to require that Cooperstown Dreams Park officials sign a non-compete clause to not build a similar facility in another area of Florida or the Southeast.

The wait until June for a vote on specific projects gives county government and Gainesville 90 days to prepare business plans on their projects, which will then go to the advisory Tourist Development Council. Gainesville Assistant City Manager Paul Folkers requested the three-month period so the city could have enough time to prepare business plans for its proposals.

Newberry City Manager Keith Ashby said time is of the essence for his city's project.

"The reality is that there are other counties sand other cities that want this project," Ashby said. "One of them is just north of us, and they're pushing hard for it."

Lake City in Columbia County is also in the running for the baseball complex.

Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or chris.curry@gvillesun.com.

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