Petitions Filed to Force Vote on Convention Center

“Unconventional Austin” PAC submits signatures to city clerk

Austin Convention Center in 2015
Austin Convention Center in 2015 (Photo by John Anderson)

On Friday afternoon, July 12, Unconventional Austin – a group formed to oppose the city’s proposed expansion and redesign of the Convention Center – submitted its signed petitions to the city clerk, and filed its initial SPAC (special-purpose political action committee) paperwork.

According to the UA press release, the petitions have been signed by 30,000 Austin voters, and “would require approval for any significant expansion of the Austin Convention Center.”

The petitions first must be reviewed by the clerk’s office in order to validate the signatures, a process that normally takes about a month (20,000 valid signatures is the standard for a referendum). City Council would need to vote whether to place the petition on the November ballot by Aug. 19, although the mayor and other council members have questioned the legality of the petition, and its contents.

The first campaign finance reports are due today (July 15), and when posted by the clerk’s office, should make public the major funding sources for the petition campaign.

Also on Friday, a PAC opposing the petition ordinance filed its paperwork. “PHAM” PAC – an acronym meaning Palm School, Homelessness, Arts, Music – was organized by former mayoral aide Jim Wick, who said the name reflects the major city needs to receive funding through the finance strategies reflected in the Convention Center expansion. Mayor Steve Adler and City Council members who voted in favor of pursuing the expansion say the Hotel Occupancy Tax increase it allows will also help underwrite other city priorities, and will be linked to a Downtown-hotel funded “tourist public improvement district” as an additional funding stream to address homelessness.

In addition to requiring public votes for any significant upgrade or expansion of the Convention Center, the UA ordinance would mandate strict limits on spending HOT revenue on the Convention Center, and redirect much of HOT toward other local forms of “cultural tourism.” City officials say such re-allocation of HOT monies is illegal under state law. ("Battle Lines Drawn on Convention Center Expansion," June 14.)

The UA press release quotes Rebecca Melançon, executive director of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, saying, “The people of Austin deserve a vote on an expansion of the Convention Center … We voted on the original convention center, we voted on the first expansion, and we should vote on future expansions.” Tourism Commissioner John Riedie said, ”By balancing and diversifying our tourism strategy away from an outdated convention subsidies model, we can better protect the things that make Austin culturally authentic and created our tourism boom in the first place.”

Later on Friday, after the petitions were filed, Mayor Adler issued the following statement:

“The community needs to know who is behind this effort and who is paying for it. We had a unanimous vote by one of the most progressive city councils in our city’s history with near unanimously favorable community testimony. We have unanimous votes by the Tourism Commission and the Visitor Impact Task Force, with representatives of the music and arts commissions and communities.

“We’ve had four studies that have looked at this issue and the council has discussed it for years. All agree that we can get hundreds of millions of dollars of community benefits for homeless services, our music and arts industries, and preserving our important historic sites like the Palm School. All paid for by tourists, not local property or sales taxes.

“Who is paying to mislead the public and oppose these priorities?”

For more on the Convention Center debate, follow the Daily News and this week’s print issue.

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Convention Center, Unconventional Austin, Steve Adler, November 2019 Election

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