Council: Visitors Welcome?

CodeNEXT, Visit Austin return to City Council

For the second week in a row, City Council is contemplating an early adjournment. Only 31 Items are on tap, and not many trigger alarms of marathon arguments. There are a handful of contracts, minimal zoning cases, and only a few Items that appear to bear an aura of controversy.

One might well be Item 6, a $2.3 million bump in the ongoing contract for CodeNEXT consultant firm Opticos Design, with a total now approaching $8.5 million. At Tuesday's work session, several council members raised questions about the cost and whether the supplement is necessary. The contract issue quickly became a proxy for the CodeNEXT process in general, with some (Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo) arguing that the standing April 2018 deadline is putting too much pressure on the revision process (Pool raised the possibility of another year's work), and others (Jimmy Flannigan, Mayor Steve Adler) responding that April remains both achievable and a useful goal toward moving the process along. That argument could be renewed today – and is unlikely to conclude before April.

The subtext of this conversation is not Visit Austin alone, but Adler’s proposed “Downtown Puzzle” and its financial reliance on a potential expansion of the Convention Center.

Also on the hot seat is the return of the budget and marketing plan for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, aka "Visit Austin." With some hesitation over financial disruption, Council's decision on approval of Visit Austin's budget was postponed at the Sept. 28 meeting, after the agency's staff did a few turns in Council's barrel of shame over whether the agency had been profligate (or worse) in its spending on marketing and promotion (as alleged in a KXAN report and elsewhere). Visit Austin staff defended the spending on concerts and parties for clients as standard practice within the industry – and provided evidence of considerable return on investment. In a letter to Council, CEO Tom Noonan cited a "return on investment" of $150 million in local economic impact (and related hotel occupancy tax revenues), writing: "All the money invested in sales and marketing by Visit Austin are legitimate and legal uses of hotel occupancy tax dollars. We follow the standard practices of our industry."

At least some CMs (notably Pool and Tovo) remained unpersuaded, and asked for additional time to review the budget and master plan and get more information before a Council vote, presumably today (Oct. 12).

The subtext of this conversation is not Visit Austin alone, but Adler's proposed "Downtown Puzzle" and its financial reliance on expanding the Convention Center. As we've reported in detail previously ("Putting Together the Downtown Puzzle," Sept. 22), the Puzzle would rely on the Con­ven­tion Center expansion to trigger additional HOT funding that could then be redirected to other Downtown projects. (The headline items are addressing homelessness, cultural/music support, and expanding the Downtown park system.) But some people, on and off the dais, are uneasy about both the Puzzle and the Convention Center expansion, and Council's foot-dragging on the issue reflects that split.

Pool said last week that Council has "never been asked" whether the Center should be expanded, and she and other CMs have pushed hard to split the Puzzle into its component projects and to review each one for its advisability and potential funding streams. The mayor's position (also with dais support) has been that the various projects are all related, and that the expansion of the Convention Center is both needed in itself and provides the "key to unlock the funding" that would address the series of Downtown issues, all tourism-related and to be underwritten by tourism-generated HOT funds.

Some or all of these arguments may be aired out again today, although Visit Austin will still need a decision on its FY 2018 plans and budget in order to continue its work. Opposing the previous delay, Flan­ni­gan praised Visit Austin's success and told his colleagues: "If Austin says there's a better way to do visitors' bureaus, and there's some new way to do it ... which generates more tourism and generates more sales taxes, I don't think three weeks' delay is going to be time for us to solve that puzzle."

Also on the agenda:

Alternative Sentencing: Municipal Court handles many nuisance offenses, often connected to homelessness; this proposed ordinance (Item 9) would formalize a process for judges to establish sentences other than fines for indigent defendants.

Saltillo Expansion: Items 17 and 18 would each expand the current Plaza Saltillo Reg­ulating Plan to include more land and more opportunity for affordable housing. Pio Ren­teria, sponsoring the Items, says Item 18 is more comprehensive and will supersede.

For proclamations, it's Ronald McDonald House Charities of Change Day, and Pro Bono Week; and the musical honoree is the Band Aid School of Music.

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Steve Adler, Jimmy Flannigan, Leslie Pool, City Council, CodeNEXT

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