Visit Fort Wayne CEO and President Dan O’Connell understands that the vote to increase the Allen County Innkeepers Tax was difficult, but says it will put the city in a position to attract more visitors.
For Allen County Councilman Ken Fries, who voted with the minority against the boost from 7% to 8%, it’s putting the burden on the wrong group.
Allen County Council voted 4-3 on Aug. 15 for the change, which O’Connell said will add about 75 cents a night to hotel and motel guests’ bills. The change begins Jan. 1.
Last month, Gary Shearer, president and CEO of PHP and a longtime board member and past president of Visit Fort Wayne, told council members, “Fort Wayne (is) the second largest city in Indiana, but we, Visit Fort Wayne, have the eighth largest budget in the state of Indiana,” Shearer said. “We’re behind cities like Evansville and Columbus.”
Compared to other cities that Visit Fort Wayne competes with for conventions, “we rank nearly last,” Shearer said. “and we have less than 25% of the budget of a place like Grand Rapids (Michigan),” he said.
Council members delayed the vote a month.
O’Connell attended August’s meeting and spoke again.
“We pointed out, it’s not a tax on residents,” O’Connell said. “It’s more of a user fee.”
Also, they countered concerns about oversight of the money by adding a county council member to their board, which numbers nearly two dozen.
“There is oversight,” O’Connell said, pointing out that board members include Randy Brown, executive vice president and general manager of Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, who collaborates on many events.
“The funds are restricted for tourism,” O’Connell said. “...Fort Wayne competes with every city in the nation.”
The first increase in 10 years will allow Visit Fort Wayne to attract more adaptive sports events and to promote the Genealogy Center at Allen County Public Library to rival the world’s largest genealogical library in Salt Lake City, Utah, O’Connell said. June 28-July 10, the city saw about 600 athletes, coaches and other staff attend the 2019 International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA) Goalball and Judo Paralympic Qualifiers in the city.
Also the city in the last decade has increased the number of hotels and attractions that will help create a better tourism package, O’Connell said. Items such as printed guides take resources, he said.
Residents not only will benefit from the tourism economy; the change could help the region achieve its goal of increasing the population to 1 million. People visit a place before they move there, O’Connell said.
Whether the tourism agency adds staff will depend on the success of the increased reach that the 1% increase, estimated to net $750,000, will bring in. It may work with representatives in Chicago and other areas.
Many of the hotel owners support the increase, as did the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. President Herb Hernandez spoke July 18 on behalf of the 80-member chamber, in support of the increase. About 25% of the chamber’s members are in the restaurant business, which would also benefit from the tourists, he told the council.
However, Fries believes it’s the hotels that should be paying for the increase, not visitors, which is why he voted against it.
“The hotels won’t pony up the money,” Fries said.
As he went around the community he’d ask what his constituents thought of the increase.
Their response, according to Fries once he explained it: “So people come to visit Fort Wayne, and we want to charge them more money to visit?”
Only two people supported the increase. They were from Michigan and said they’d be willing to pay more.
Fries, though, is skeptical that visitors will pay just 75 cents extra night.
“What hotel here is $75 a night and you’d want to stay there?” he said.
He’d rather see the hotels give more money for Visit Fort Wayne’s budget, such as a membership fee, he said.