Council: Visit Austin, But How?

Council creates oversight for city tourism

by Thinkstock

Austin is on its way to having a Tourism Commission. The new 11-member board, which City Council approved after a contentious discussion (sound familiar?) last Thursday, will assume oversight responsibility over Visit Austin, the marketing arm of the Austin Convention Center, and advise Council on more general tourism issues. Ann Kitchen, who spearheaded the ordinance, said "it's past time" the city has a permanent body to oversee the complex industry, which also supplies the city with millions in hotel occupancy taxes, a tightly regulated revenue stream that some, including Mayor Steve Adler, hope will go toward funding a convention center expansion. Expected to convene for its first time in August, the new commission will also work to figure out how the city can further use its slice of the H.O.T. pie.

The crux of last week’s conflict was the issue of expertise.

The crux of last week's conflict was the issue of expertise. A faction of the dais, including Adler and Jimmy Flannigan, harbor concerns about the level of industry knowledge of those who would serve on the commission, which Kitchen believes can be addressed by specific appointments. Flan­ni­gan introduced a motion that would have added an additional 10 members to the body, from various other city commissions, including Arts, Music, Economic Pros­perity, Down­town, Historic Landmark, and the Parks and Recreation Board. That fell flat with Kitchen, Leslie Pool, Ellen Troxclair, and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who believed that would make the commission too big to do its job. Flannigan offered to whittle the proposed tally of 21 commissioners down to 18, but that suggestion also didn't fly with his colleagues.

The discussion put on display the division between members who believe that industry experts should play an integral role on the commission and others who'd like to see professional advocates of tourism play a less influential role.

Industry leaders like Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Tom Noonan and Convention Center Director Mark Tester had a strong presence on the Visitor Impact Task Force that Council convened in August of 2016. That body returned the following April, recommending a marketing advisory committee to oversee Visit Austin, rather than a proper commission. The task force also threw its support behind an expansion of the convention center, something Adler supported so fully that he spent the early months of the summer scheming up the "Downtown Puzzle" plan, to fund everything from the expansion to Austin's efforts to eradicate homelessness, with the linchpin of the complex effort being a 2% hike to the hotel occupancy tax ("The Mayor's Plan to Fix Everything," July 16, 2017). That August, Tovo, Kitchen, Troxclair, and Pool – the same coalition that's pushing for the new commission – enraged Adler by opposing the H.O.T. increase, and in August rallied around a KXAN exposé that painted the Visit Austin budget as a glorified expense account for convention center executives.

A few of those hard feelings apparently still linger, and only time will tell how the new commission will affect how the city further extracts money out of the H.O.T., and whether or not it'll work against the mission of Visit Austin, which as a private contractor has generally been insulated from the inner workings of City Hall. As usual, the devil will live in the details; in this case, the commission's membership: the individuals who'll gather in City Hall's boards and commissions room once or twice a month to talk about city tourism.

Council was scheduled to convene this week (Thurs­day) for a special meeting concerning CodeNEXT, but won't, so members can go to Tornillo to visit the tent city housing immigrant children. They'll hold one last regular meeting next Thursday, June 28, before going on summer break. By then, it's possible that some members could have appointees they'll want to put forward for the new commission (though a firm deadline for appointees doesn't arrive for another month). The commission's first major undertaking will be an examination of the budget for Visit Austin. Expect fireworks, and not the type you see on the Fourth of July.

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Visit Austin, Jimmy Flannigan, Ann Kitchen, City Council, Tom Noonan, Mark Tester

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