The Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau wants to slam the door on using public money to build more hotel rooms.
All but one member of the bureau’s advisory board passed a motion Monday opposing the use of city tax dollars to fund private hotels in Columbia. The group will draft a letter to the City Council stating their concerns within the next few days.
“The board is concerned about bed tax abatements to support specific hotel development,” said Lorah Steiner, executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The group said it is not opposed to public tax money being used to build parking garages, sewers and other projects that don’t only benefit a single hotel developer.
“If Mike Ebert wants to tear down the Regency and wants some public help for a parking garage for a new hotel, the board does not perceive that as a problem,” Steiner said.
Previously, Tiger Hotel owner John Ott and City Manager Bill Watkins discussed possibly shifting a 4 percent hotel-motel tax to The Tiger to help pay off renovation costs. That tax money normally goes to the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Steiner said the bureau specifically opposes abating the hotel-motel tax.
“It’s a slippery slope,” Steiner said. “Once you start abating bed taxes for a hotel developer and move away from what that tax is originally intended for, that gets you in trouble.”
Bureau member Ed Baker said he doesn’t think public money should ever be used for private hotel development.
“It’s an unfair disadvantage to any (other) privately funded hotel,” Baker said.
Ott said his project is an exception because The Tiger is a historic property that could “make the pie larger” for Columbia’s economy by drawing new visitors which would increase demand for hotel space.
“If they took a look at the big picture, they’d see more people will be attracted to Columbia,” Ott said.
But Baker said hotel occupancy rates in Columbia are the lowest he’s seen in 25 years.
“There is no new drive or demand for rooms,” Baker said. “The city hasn’t added anything, except for retail, and retail doesn’t create or draw demand. It services demand already in place.”
Watkins said the Convention and Visitors Bureau has historically opposed shifting the city’s hotel-motel tax proceeds away from the bureau, but their opposition to any public tax dollars funding private hotels is new.
Since The Tiger is a historic property, it is potentially eligible for other tax abatement programs through the city and state.
“We’ve never had a proposal like this before,” Watkins said. “As we move forward looking at The Tiger hotel, that will be one thing the council will weigh in its decision.”
If public money, particularly a hotel-motel tax, is used to fund private development, Steiner said, the city “opens a gate that can’t easily be closed.”
“As a general principle, where do you draw the line?” Steiner asked. “It’s not a level playing field.”