Economy puts squeeze on festivals

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Tourism group doles out funds

By Lou Elliott Jones, Editor

The Levy County Tourist Development Tax, paid by guests at hotels, motels, RV parks and other rental places with a six-month limit on occupancy, are dropping and the county Tourism Development Council has been forced to be choosy about where it spends the taxes.

In its meeting June 25 to review grant applications for the November 2009 to October 2010 cycle, the council’s first action was to drop applications from new events that had not complied with paperwork requirements or provided a budget.

Carol McQueen, director of the Levy County Visitors Bureau, told the TDC that the tourist tax of 2 percent declined by 4.6 percent from the fiscal year 2007 to 2008. “And if you take what happened last year,” McQueen said, “Just from May to May we have a decline of about 11.3 percent.” She said collections are off by about $17,000.

The state Department of Revenue reports show the county has collected $149,311 in the past 12 months, down from $169,644 the year before.

The county charges 2 cents on every dollar spent on tourist and temporary lodgings, although it could collect as much as 5 cents on every dollar paid by the guests. The tax is paid by the lodging operators and billed to the customer. “They’re (lodging operators) the ones that invest in it and they want to see a return on their money.”

The Visitors Bureau is funded by the tax, so about $89,000 comes off the top for administration and the rest is used for advertising and promotion of events in Levy County that will draw tourists.

“This tax is paid by heads in beds,” McQueen said explaining the TDC’s spending policy. “Does the money go to put heads in beds?”

With that in mind the seven TDC members set their spending priorities for the 2009-2010 event cycle.

Right off the bat, the TDC voted to turn down the applications of several unnamed small events that did not file their paperwork properly or provide a budget for the event or indicate how the money would be used.

The action whittled downs the list of applicants for the grants from 20 to 13.

This action set the tone for later in the meeting when the application for the annual Williston Peanut Festival, held in early October, came up and it did not have a budget attached.

After some discussion, the TDC decided against a grant for the festival, which has received grants for advertising in the past. “We started denying right off the bat for non-compliance and insufficiency, we’re not being consistent if we go with this,” Helen Koehler said.

McQueen reminded the board that it is a two-day festival and the county’s largest with estimates of 8,000 people attending.

The same occurred with an application for the Gulf Area Jamboree sponsored by the Yankeetown-Inglis Chamber and Lions Club. Its application for funds was denied.

The Fanning Springs Festival of Light was allocated only $500 of its $1,500 request after board members noted it is a one-day event that does not bring in overnight visitors.

Cedar Key’s Clamerica celebration, coming up this weekend, got a warm reception from the TDC and its grant request was approved.

“This is becoming a bigger event than the seafood festival,” McQueen said. TDC member Stanley Bair, owner of the Island House Hotel, agreed the festival and its associated fireworks show is growing.

“They put so much into this and they fill up Cedar Key for the weekend,” she said.

By this point in the meeting the TDC was faced with four applications for $5,000 each and one for $10,000 — totaling $30,000 — and only $17,500 left to allocate.

The Cedar Key Arts Festival, the only county event with a paid coordinator, was approved for a $5,000 grant.

The Levy County Fair Association, which recently reorganized and moved its event from November to April because of too many conflicting events, was, allocated $5,000, its full request.

The Levy County Humane Society’s annual Bark ‘n’ Purr also received the nod for a $5,000 grant and the annual Wild Hog Canoe and Kayak Race, whose profits go to the Levy County Association of Retarded Citizens, was approved for a $2,500 grant.

The TDC was impressed that the Bark ‘n’ Purr organizer Michelle Hagan did a survey of attendees at the annual fundraiser that features country and western entertainers showing the event draws visitors from outside Levy County.

“That’s an amazing event, they have dug this out of the ground,”said TDC member Helen Ciallella.

Mike Schenk and Toni Collins, representatives for the Humane Society, said the event is looking at bringing in a big name star and expanding to three days.

Collins said plans call for a family night on Friday, concert and activities on Saturday and a mud bog on Sunday. That is also predicated on the event moving from Bronson’s Diddley Park to the Bronson Speedway. Schenk and Collins said the move is not definite.

McQueen commended Hagan as well saying that at the Bark ‘n’ Purr Web site there is a link to accommodations in Levy County for visitors.

The Wild Hog event is also looking at covering two days instead of its usual one by having side trips to local creeks and waterways on the second day. One option on the table is a “fun run” from Fanning Springs State Park to Manatee Springs State Park and cookout. Betty Walker, LARC executive director, said the tourism grant might be used to pay for busses to take the kayakers back to their vehicles.

The Levy Fair application came in for some questioning as the Fair is carrying $12,000 in debt from its 2006 event. Organizers, who turned out the biggest group at the meeting, eight people, said the grant would not be used to retire debt, but to improve the fair.

The fair is under new leadership and events are being reorganized to emphasize the midway, which the Suwannee River Fair and Livestock Show does not have, and other contests and events.

Organizers said they are also working to bring in a name singer for a concert to highlight the fair and have moved the fair’s date to April because of conflicts with other events in the fall, and football season.