BROOKSVILLE — If Hernando County is going to compete with surrounding counties for tourism dollars it will have to raise the bed tax from the existing three cents on the dollar to five cents and refocus marketing efforts.
That was the advice of Tourism Development Coordinator Tammy Heon who, in a presentation to county commissioners last week, confirmed she will keep open the welcome center at State Road 50 and Interstate 75 despite decreasing attendance and a revenue shortage.
County Commissioner Nick Nicholson was poised to suggest raising the tax two cents but was told the board must hold a public hearing at it next meeting, July 8, to properly advertise the move.
The tourism development tax — commonly known as the bed tax — is collected primarily from motel, hotel and campground owners. People who own or manage living accommodations for a period of six months or less also are subject to the tax.
Hernando County has not raised the tax since 1998.
County commissioners rejected an earlier request from Heon to close the east-side welcome center and instead asked her to come to last week’s meeting with thoughts about how to bring more customers to that office.
Heon said the walk-in traffic at 31085 Cortez Blvd., about one-tenth of a mile east of I-75, steadily has decreased in the last couple of years.
She wanted to relocate the full-time employee there and reallocate resources, spending the money saved in different tourism areas. Besides, she said, the county’s other welcome center inside Weeki Wachee State Park is doing a higher volume of business and is meeting people’s needs.
Heon said the increase in bed tax money would allow for at least two billboards along I-75 that hopefully would attract more visitors to the center.
Heon said more tourists are using the internet to book vacations and find out about a county’s offerings. The idea of going to a brick-and-mortar place to pick up brochures and find out information is somewhat old-fashioned, she said.
That’s why she wants to increase Hernando County’s online presence and keep the tourism website updated.
The Hernando County Tourism Bureau so far has collected $287,089 for fiscal year 2013-14, which covers Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. It took in $370,499 in fiscal year 2012-13, and $330,587 in 2011-12.
Heon said the challenges are evident when expenditures are budgeted for the year. Those costs include $167,145 for employees, $105,970 for marketing and promotions and $82,932 for operating expenses (rent, utilities, insurance, etc).
County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said a bed tax increase might harm owners of smaller hotels who might see a customer drop-off if they passed along the additional costs.
Heon said she is contacting local hotel owners to get their thoughts.
“While raising taxes is never a popular idea, the tourism tax is a pass-through tax, levied on visitors and not on Hernando County residents,” Heon said.
Dwayne Adams, manager of Hernando Beach Suites & Condos, said he understands the need for a bed tax hike but believes two cents is too much. A one-cent increase would be more palatable to motel operators, he said.
“We need to take things gradually,” Adams said. “Times are still not the best.”
A bed tax hike, combined with the Penny For Programs one-cent sales tax on November’s ballot, is a lot to digest at one time, he said.
Tourism throughout Florida, Heon said, is big business. Other counties are putting more money into tourism efforts, and Hernando County cannot lag behind, she said.
During the height of the county’s economic boom and before the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Hernando County had 5,000 tourism-related jobs, she said. Today there are fewer than 3,000.
“To even hold our own right now we need to increase our revenues and efforts,” Heon said.
Heon said she wants to put special emphasis on the bird-watching sector of the tourism market, a $5-billion industry in Florida.
County Commissioner Diane Rowden said Hernando County is “behind the curve” when factoring in neighboring counties.
“We need to invest more into tourism,” said Rowden, adding the social media presence must be maintained.
In related news:
♦ County commissioners, looking to supplement Hernando’s marketing efforts, heard presentations from five companies Tuesday interested in providing that service.
Commissioners ranked them and gave highest marks to Brooksville-based Business Development Strategies and Gold and Associates of Jacksonville.
“Follow the Mermaid Trail” was the brand proposed by Business Development Strategies. Tom Barnette, representing the company, said the slogan is a “competitive, unique and well-defined strategy” promoting local tourism and economic development.
The phrase plays on the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park mermaid attraction.
Keith Gold, president of Gold and Associates, did not have a slogan ready to roll. But he said his team would research the area and form a marketing plan that would attract tourists.
Russ Wetherington, assistant county administrator for general services, will negotiate with the two companies and return at a later meeting with more precise costs and plan details.