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Victoria officials hesitate to support brick and mortar visitors center

By BY MELISSA CROWE - MCROWE@VICAD.COM
April 1, 2014 at 9 p.m.
Updated March 31, 2014 at 11:01 p.m.


OTHER COUNCIL ACTION

• Approved a $1.56 million agreement with YMCA of the Golden Crescent Inc. to construct a new pool, which will be open to the public

• Approved a $229,717 contract for a traffic signal at Mockingbird Lane and Carriage Drive

• Approved a resolution for a variance to allow a septic tank at 1507 Dudley St.

Tourist-hungry business owners say a traditional visitors center will drive dollars to Victoria, but as budgets shrink and digital information expands, city officials are considering other options.

Former Mayor Will Armstrong presented his proposal at the City Council meeting Tuesday for a freestanding visitors center he envisions being built downtown on Main Street and funded by the tax hotel and motel guests pay on their rooms.

"A stand-alone visitors center ... will be a conspicuous declaration that we have something to offer visitors," Armstrong said.

While some residents say a brick-and-mortar visitors center will boost tourism and inform travelers about the area, those guarding the city's coffers are hesitant to support a project that might be outdated.

"People get their information from this," Councilman Andrew Young said, holding up his iPhone. "We live in an electronic society. I'm not saying a building isn't important, but in order to draw us there, the electronic media plays a large role."

The way society is leaning, money might be better spent with online marketing on websites such as Trip Advisor, he said.

However, James Wearden, who owns the Inn on Main, said many guests are not aware of the town's offerings.

Bill McLeod, owner of Friendly Oaks, said he supports Armstrong's proposal.

"We function like a visitors center when we get people into town," he said. "A visitors center would be a great help to us."

How the building would fit into the city's overall tourism plan is still unclear to Councilman Jeff Bauknight.

"I haven't seen what the actual need is driving a building," Bauknight said. "I understand how it can enhance what we have. ... There's too many details to flesh out that I can't get behind it right now."

The money collected from the hotel-motel tax can only fund projects that benefit tourism and increase the number of overnight visitors. Of that tax fund, 15 percent can be spent on projects that benefit the arts industry.

If the tax continues falling - it is down 15 percent compared with the first quarter of 2013 - nonprofit groups could take a hit, Bauknight said.

"If we spend all this money on a building that we haven't determined a true need for or have data to back up that we have a need, what happens if parks and rec ... has a great idea for bringing people in ... and we've just blown it on a building?" he said.

Of the 12 people who spoke in support of the new building - some who operate inns and local businesses - Louise Hull Patillo, a real estate agent, said the building would add to the city's arsenal "to show off the assets we have in Victoria."

"It brings credibility to us as a tourist destination," she said. "You're not a tourist destination if you don't have a visitors center."

Councilman David Hagan said he supports the project, but the "nuts and bolts," including the finances, need to be worked out.

Tourism is a job creator and an arm of economic development, Armstrong said.

According to the state agency Market Texas Tourism, travel and tourism is one of the most important "export-oriented" industries in the state and was valued at $26.8 billion in 2012.

In Calhoun, Goliad and Victoria counties, travelers brought in $273.7 million to the area in 2012, of which, hotel and motel guests spent $108.6 million, according to a state travel impact report.

In Tyler, travelers brought in $361.6 million in 2012, and $13 billion to the Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown area in 2012.

"Millions of dollars have been spent on investing in rooms for rent, and they generate tax money for our city," Armstrong said. "We're doing a lot to bring people to Victoria with sports marketing and events, but we can do more."

Mayor Paul Polasek wants to have a work session on the issue and bring in comments from the convention and visitors bureau director, LaRue Roth. That meeting has not been scheduled.

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