By Donald Rodrigue
For Hometown News
MARTIN COUNTY -- Debating as the Local Planning Agency, Martin County commissioners voted July 17 to raise the county's bed tax from four to five cents and create a new marketing position in their quest to revive tourism promotion in the wake of closing its convention and visitors bureau last September.
The county last raised the bed tax, or the tourism development tax, from two to four cents in early 2008, and the commission has been toying with the idea of raising it again since it stopped funding the CVB. The agency voted 4-1, with Commissioner Doug Smith dissenting, to send the matter to the Martin County Tourist Development Council for further discussion after hearing Bill Geist, CEO of Madison, Wis.-based Zeitgeist Consulting, present his findings from a study of the county's tourism market.
Mr. Geist encouraged commissioners to raise the tax so they would have additional funds for beach and inlet maintenance without having to detract from tourism publicity efforts. Currently the county allocates $160,000 annually for beaches and inlets, and when the new tax is in place, he suggests the county triple that amount.
"Thirty percent of the money will then go to beach and inlet maintenance... just a shade under $500,000 a year," he said.
District 3 Commissioner Anne Scott expressed concern that local innkeepers would protest additional funding designated for the waterways.
"Having sat on the TDC, I have heard them say more than once through their representatives that their guests don't use the beach and they don't want any bed tax dollars to go to beach and inlet maintenance," she said.
Mr. Geist said innkeepers across the country traditionally only want the bed tax devoted to publicity but eventually see the good in funding other tourism-related projects as well.
"We think that since it is a proprietary tax on a single industry, their voices should be heard," he said. "We would like there to be a partnership between the lodging industry and the board of county commissioners going forward."
Both Commissioner John Haddox and Commissioner Doug Smith expressed concern that bed tax funds were already stagnating in the bank without a new person or office overseeing their dispersal.
"I think once this board commits to a tourism plan, I think that will help regenerate the credibility of where we're going with it," Mr. Haddox said.
"It's to the point that we've got $1.7 million sitting in the bank and we're not doing anything with it. That's problematic for the industry."
Commissioner Smith said time was running out to create both a plan and find a person to implement it.
"I think there's a sense of urgency," he said. "If our plan is not in place by September for the coming season, we will not be prepared no matter how good of a person we get."
Mr. Geist said the county also needs to decide how best to utilize its tourism development council.
"The TDC has been struggling with quorum for a while, and there are some members that believe the board of county commissioners does not value that body," he said. "You need to rethink what the TDC means to you, and if appropriate, repopulate it with people you think will get the job done for you."
Several members of the public also spoke at the meeting, including the outgoing director of the Treasure Coast Sports Commission Tom Calucci, who said the county's beaches have already caught the eye of a California volleyball promoter.
"That wouldn't have happened if the beaches were not in the condition that they are in today," Mr. Calucci said. "if you didn't re-nourish the beach, we would have no beach."
Ron Rose, executive director of Jensen Beach Chamber of Commerce, advised commissioners that putting the money into publicity would bring better results.
"I think people don't understand tourism," Mr. Rose said. "It's kind of this hidden industry that impacts almost every single business. We need to do more to promote tourism as a viable industry in this county, and I don't think we do a good enough job in this."