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Tourism council suggestion draws opposition

Published:   |   Updated: March 12, 2013 at 05:30 PM

SEBRING "The fat lady hasn't sung yet," Fred Leavitt said.

That's a measure of the Heartland Cultural Alliance's unhappiness about the Tourist Development Council's plan to redistribute the $330,000 collected each year from the 2 percent bed tax.

Under the current plan, arts and culture is earmarked for 17 percent of the money. If Highlands County commissioners agree with the TDC, arts will share $231,000 marketing dollars with administration, golf, sports, fishing, nature and ecological groups.

"We're using 10-year-old thinking," Leavitt said. The TDC knows how to promote events like golf tournaments, but members don't know how to market arts and culture, which requires branding the county as an arts destination.

Council member John Griffin pointed out that $186,000 has been set aside, which will be available if the arts and culture community brings in projects to be funded.

"We haven't refused arts and culture," Griffin said. It's the job of the arts community, not the TDC, to go out and find arts projects to market.

Lake Placid's murals have received national attention from Reader's Digest, and the South Florida State College museum has the largest collection of Florida master artists in the world. Leavitt's list includes live theater, a Smithsonian exhibit, Toby the Clown's museum, the Highlands Arts League village in downtown Sebring, and displays at Kenilworth Lodge, Jacaranda, Sebring Historical Society, Lake Placid Historical Society, Air Sea Services Museum and Avon Park Depot.

By a 5-1 vote, TDC members will recommend Option 2 to the county commission in April, bypassing Option 1, developed in January. Option 3 would have set aside 15 percent for future arts and culture events. Option 4 would have earmarked 30 percent for marketing, 20 percent for local events, 10 percent for lakes, 10 percent for arts and culture, 10 percent for golf, 10 percent for sports and 10 percent for fishing and outdoors.

"I can argue 2 and I can argue 3," said Chairman Don Elwell, who eventually voted against Option 2. "Option 4 is painting ourselves in a corner more than we did 10 years ago."

If the TDC gets its way, Option 2 would be implemented as soon as the commission approves. The marketing plan would be in effect for three years with no limitation as to when the money can be spent. Currently, preference is given to winter events because they produce the most hotel room rentals.

Bill Youngman was also unhappy. "Give the citizens some say so. Right now you're sitting up there like dictators." Youngman has advocated that the 2 percent tourism tax be abolished by the county commissioners and passed again with an automatic 10-year sunset clause.

"The past is past and laid to rest," Leavitt addressed the TDC.

"Fred, you talk out of both sides of your mouth," Griffin retorted, holding up a letter to the editor from Leavitt printed Feb. 25 in Highlands Today.

The letter began, "For 10 years, the Tourist Development Council has ignored the county ordinance governing bed tax expenditures and spent the tax monies to serve their own interests."

"The people on this board are volunteers," Griffin reminded Leavitt, with the exception of Elwell, a paid county commissioner, and members like Christine Hatfield, co-owner of Inn on the Lake and a representative of the hotel industry.

Leavitt also had defenders, like Sandy Del Valle of Save Dollars Travel in Lake Placid, who said women make 80 percent of the travel decisions, but the TDC has been marketing racing, golf and fishing, mostly to men.

Marlene Barger of the Group for Better Government said Leavitt "has worked very hard to make arts and culture a part of Highlands County. He is like a little giant in the center of Florida."

"It's not always head in beds," Barger suggested. Arts and culture events can attract people to a one-day event, and the tourist may see what they want and come back later to spend the night.

"Our relationship with arts and culture is an evolving one," Elwell responded. "Last year, we recognized the value of a single event. It doesn't necessarily have to generate a single room night. Just like we go to the Strawberry Festival (in Plant City) for one day."

For that reason, Elwell said, last year the TDC added a way for some events to receive up to $750 in grants.

Bob Fishel, a Highlands Arts Council board member, suggested the TDC underestimates the public intelligence. "They don't believe the percentages are complicated. They think that's high school math." (863) 386-5828


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