Downtown Puzzle: It Ain’t Solved Yet
Can the mayor make the pieces fit together?
Although it only hit the headlines this fall, the "Puzzle" – Mayor Steve Adler's name for a multipurpose approach to several intertwined business-district challenges – was initiated a year ago, with the appointment of a broad-based Visitor Impact Task Force. Their report, issued in June, proposed a 2% increase in the hotel occupancy tax (HOT), as a funding stream to address Downtown homelessness (continuing earlier efforts), while also making available additional funds for the "Cultural Arts grant program ... music and historic preservation." The mayor touts the plan as avoiding property tax increases while requiring "tourists to pay for these problems that affect tourism."
Additional pieces of the proposed Puzzle include supporting "heritage sites" (Palm School, the Mexican American Cultural Center, Brush Square Park) as well as geographically related Tax Increment Financing districts that would target a Waller Creek "chain of parks," perhaps fund permanent supportive housing, and even broader Downtown efforts like the Medical School-area "Innovation Zone." But the initial conception depends on the bump in the HOT percentage – which advocates say can only happen (under state law) in connection with an expansion of the Convention Center.
And there's the rub: The citywide hoteliers are officially on board with the HOT increase, provided it's connected to the Convention Center expansion (which they claim is necessary to attract larger conventions now going elsewhere). But there is stout opposition to that expansion – on and off the Council dais – as opponents argue it is unnecessary or indirectly a corporate subsidy, even if it raises additional city funding to address other priorities.
In the latest wrinkle, on Dec. 14 Council voted to commission UT-Austin's Center for Sustainable Development to perform a yearlong study of "The Physical and Economic Planning Implications of Alternative Convention Center Scenarios." Although that project has the potential of delaying the entire discussion until next fall, the mayor is simultaneously attempting to maintain the HOT funding increase and the option of a Convention Center expansion. Whether he can indeed persuade his colleagues (and the public) to keep all those balls in the air – and keep puzzling through the pieces – will be a story for 2018.