Orange County commissioners postpone decision on tourist-tax spending

Orange County commissioners finished a long, feisty discussion Tuesday about how to spend future millions of tourist-tax dollars without making a decision, despite nudging by Mayor Jerry Demings.

Board members said they needed more time to digest memos from Demings, Comptroller Phil Diamond and fellow commissioners Myra Uribe and Emily Bonilla before moving forward on the mayor’s suggestion to borrow $900 million for a convention center expansion and upgrades to Camping World Stadium.

They’ll get more time. The board agreed to hold a special workshop, not yet unscheduled.

The two projects, carrying a combined, estimated price tag of $1.7 billion, were ranked the top applications among 52 submitted to a task force created by Demings to evaluate funding requests.

The mayor proposed funding each in phases.

“Just an option,” Demings said of his plan. “Regardless of what we do, there is risk.”

Commissioner Michael Scott, whose district includes most of Pine Hills and the International Drive tourist corridor, wanted more information about the possible peril of committing to a 30-year debt.

“I don’t want to rush to do anything,” he said.

The comptroller, considered the county’s fiscal watchdog, urged the board in a memo last week to exercise “strong fiscal discipline and prudence” as they weighed funding decisions for money generated by the Tourist Development Tax, or TDT, a 6% assessment tacked into the cost of a hotel room, a VRBO rental or other short-term lodging. He cited the up-and-down volatility of TDT revenues.

Orange County Comptroller releases memo urging cautious tourist-tax spending

Revenues plunged to historic lows during the pandemic in 2020, but hit an all-time high of $336 million in fiscal year 2021-22, a mark likely to be eclipsed this fiscal year despite consecutive down months.

Diamond said sudden, unexpected things have hurt tourism in the past, including COVID-19.

But Fred Winterkamp, manager of the county’s fiscal and business services office, gave commissioners historic reasons to be optimistic about TDT growth and another rebound in the near future.

TDT has usually grown quickly after new attractions open, he said.

It grew 8.2 % in 1998, the year Disney opened Animal Kingdom; 9.1% in 2000, the year after Universal opened Islands of Adventure; and 19% in 2011, the year after the Wizarding World of Harry Potter debuted.

In 2025, Winterkamp said, Universal is set to open EPIC Universe, a new theme park, including attractions built around characters from Super Nintendo video games and “How to Train Your Dragon” movies.

Demings told commissioners that urgency was important.

He said he’d prefer a decision before the Legislature reconvenes in January,

“The cost of any of these projects is going up and up and up. The cost of time is working against us,” the mayor said. “We know this last Legislative session, there was some conversation — some serious conversation — about taking TDT from large urban counties and redistributing a portion of receipts to smaller, rural counties.”

Orange County Convention Center expansion to cost about $900M. Mayor Demings wants to borrow $500M for it

After the meeting, the mayor said a board consensus appeared to be in favor of expanding the convention center, with Scott saying he considered it “a foregone conclusion.”

But commissioners also heard from dozens of others lobbying for different projects.

Former Mayor Linda Chapin, for whom a theater inside the convention center is named, urged the board to consider setting aside money for an ambitious expansion of Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts, which she called “one of the most beautiful, admired facilities on the globe.”

Cooper Labelle, a 12-year-old opera singer from Winter Park who has performed in a local production of the operetta “Die Fledermaus,” urged the board to approve more funding for Orange County Arts & Cultural Affairs so “more children could be given this opportunity and experience. …”

A half dozen supporters of the University of Central Florida appealed to commissioners to consider funding UCF’s Athletics Village, which would upgrade FBC Mortgage Stadium and other facilities.

The Knights’ entourage included men’s basketball coach Johnny Dawkins and Athletic Director Terry Mohajir, all of whom punctuated their public appeal with the school’s rallying call, “Charge On!”

Orlando Magic co-founder Pat Williams rounded out the line-up of public speakers, pitching his dream to build a billion-dollar, domed baseball stadium in the tourist corridor and bring a Major League team to town.

Also an author of 100 inspirational books, he told the board, “Let’s do it, gang.”

The baseball stadium did not make the task force’s list of recommended projects.