Arts and culture promotion should be specific part of TDC budget

On May 28 the Tourist Development Council will ask the commissioners to override a public vote. The TDC wants to institute an ordinance of its own making. They ask us to trust in their expertise to do what is best for the county. Hindsight shows us TDC violated the public trust. They ignored spending guidelines, let administration costs run way over the percentage allotted and diverted funds designated to attract the cultural tourist. This did not go unnoticed by the state's Joint Legislative Committee. TDC was called to task. This resulted in an audit of its expenditures over the past 10 years. The audit disclosed that separate category funds mandated in the ordinance were never established. Funds were lumped together and spent to suit the council's desires. Promoting arts and culture was obviously not one of their desires.
Controversies now revolve around the TDC's inability to tap into the largest (74.9 percent) most prosperous segment of the market, the cultural tourist. TDC would like to blame this on arts and culture not applying for grants. The creative community notes TDC's archaic sport-centric guidelines and forms discriminate against the arts. They point out the guidelines were set up without insight from anyone on the council with an arts and culture background and need to be revised to reflect what other counties with arts and culture assets use. No matter how you slice it TDC is currently hindered in its ability to reach its goals. Tourism is Florida's largest economy and TDC is our gateway to it. Our gates are only partway open. TDC believes it has the solution and is proposing an ordinance they say will improve its performance. TDC will first ask the commissioners to raise the bed tax from 2 percent to 3 percent. This would bring the administrative costs back in balance. Salaries would then be a fixed amount taken from the top. The TDC proposal then wants 70 percent of the remaining funds to be used at their discretion without guidelines. They suggest freedom from guidelines could benefit arts and culture. Hindsight shows they took this freedom before, and it was cut out of the mix. They also want to remove arts and culture as a percentage of revenue. This would give TDC the power to not fund it in the future. This is a curious way to build trust and a working relationship with the arts and culture community. Will this help TDC enhance the image of Highlands County, bring cultural tourists here, enrich the community and bolster our economy? I don't think so. Apparently neither does TDC Chair Don Elwell. He was the only vote on the council against removing arts and culture as a percent of the bed tax. The cultural tourist is a rare animal in Highlands County. They come here mostly by accident. Take Rex and Laura Diamond from Illinois who came to visit relatives. They spent a few days in a hotel, ate at our best restaurants and left big tips. The Diamonds had no interest in roaring engines or triathlons. They came across a Peter Powell Roberts painting and bought it. The Diamonds added over $10,000 to our economy and quietly returned home. We should be working toward getting more tourists like this. The TDC proposal misses the mark. A decade of discouraging A&C's involvement in tourism has been counterproductive. Its time to shape an ordinance allowing arts and culture to retain its percent and revise the guidelines to encourage it to do what it does best: draw tourists and enrich communities. Working together with arts and culture is what would enable TDC to improve its performance. It would expand our reach and open the gates wide to the whole market. Fred Leavitt is the president of the Heartland Cultural Alliance. Contact him at fred@fredleavitt.com.