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Here are some comments that didn’t make it into today’s story on City Council’s deliberations over the Expo subsidy.
First of all, the story and this post both mention how some council members are worried that they really can’t be certain what the future will hold for Celebrate Virginia. A look at how past announcements of projects there have held up shows how hard it is to know–even with updates from the Silvers–what’s going to happen there.
Economic Development Director Kevin Gullette said last night (and Silver executive Jud Honaker said in this story) that a tourism campus like Celebrate Virginia is much more difficult to develop than a pure retail complex, which the Silvers are more accustomed to building.
The Expo center is seen as an “anchor” to that tourism complex, and, Gullette said, “The fear is, if you have a tourism campus and the Expo Center goes away, it’s hard to rebound from that negativity that would be out there in the market.”
That could change the dynamic once and for all at Celebrate Virginia from tourism to retail, and Gullette said that would be bad, because, “We want to see Celebrate Virginia South, not Central Park North.”
A few more notes:
Matt Kelly said last night, and again on the radio this morning, that the money for the subsidy should not come from the general fund balance, but from the lodging tax. He suggested raising that tax one percentage point to help bring some of that money in. The $190,000 he estimates that would generate would pay for almost two-thirds of the city’s annual subsidy (in the years when the Silvers don’t contribute). Kelly said the lodging tax is an appropriate funding source because that way, tourists, not city homeowners, would pay for the subsidy.
Marvin Dixon was concerned with the way that the subsidy idea was presented to the council. He said he met on May 29 with Honaker and Expo owner Tom Ballantine and heard the center needed assistance.
“I thought what we talked about was it,” he said. “I did not expect a return trip to the altar.” He said the subsidy proposal came “without warning” and “I really never expected to see a subsidy.”
Debby Girvan expressed similar concerns in an interview last week.
She said she had no idea a subsidy was in the works until she was e-mailed the memorandum on it hours before last week’s work session. She had thought that work session was going to be a chance to talk about the $50,000 deal-closing fund.
“This deserved more than a 15-minute work session,” she said after last week’s meeting. “I’m disappointed that it was presented that way.”
City Manager Phil Rodenberg said the city has taken steps to help the Expo Center since it opened, and along the way, they always hoped each small step would be enough.
First, the city devoted two part-time staff members in its tourism office to help with bookings and sales.
Then, it ended the Celebrate Virginia special tax district that was paying back the $1 million the city gave to the Slavery Museum, once that money had been repaid.
Next came the $50,000 fund, and when that wasn’t enough, the $900,000 subsidy was put on the table.
Kerry Devine wondered whether, with this proposal, “Is [the center] ever going to be viable, or are we just buying time?”
And since conventions and events are booked years ahead of time, George Solley wondered how much capacity Ballantine has to increase his business over the next three years, if a chunk of his calendar is already filled.
“What is that $300,000 going to enable him to do over the next three years that he can’t already do?” Solley asked.
Some of this could come up at the council’s budget retreat, which is scheduled for Nov. 9, but expect more discussion (but no vote) at the Nov. 13 regular meeting.