Unconventional Austin Turns in Petitions

AIBA has endorsed the petition created by Unconventional Austin to require a vote on the expansion of the Convention Center and to reallocate some of the Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) revenue to support music, arts, parks and local businesses (Read more about our support). The issue at had is not whether to expand the Convention Center or not, but rather should the public have a vote on expansion and should the HOT revenue be allocated in a different way. The distribution of Hot revenue to support the things tourists really come here for is more in alignment with other cities in Texas.  Whether you are for or against expansion, you should have the right to vote.

Bill Bunch, director of SOS Alliance, met supporters at City Hall today to submit 30,000 signatures to place this issue on the November ballot.

Now work begins to educate people and to get out the vote. Unconventional AUstin has post cards and posters. If you would like some of these for your business, please let me know, rebecca@ibuyaustin.com.

Update on the Paid Sick Leave Ordinance

I am writing today to give you all an update on the City of Austin’s Mandatory Paid Sick Leave Ordinance.

With all the legislative chatter and court actions it is difficult to know where it stands and what is expected of businesses in Austin.

As you may know, during the recent Legislative session the seemingly well-supported statewide bill intended to undo the city’s ordinance failed for lack of a vote in the House. The Governor has said that there will be no special session. So for now, there will be no statewide legislation that will address the ordinance, and therefore, the fate of the ordinance rests in the courts.

In November of 2018, the appellate court ruled that the City of Austin’s sick leave ordinance violated the Texas Constitution by violating the Texas Minimum Wage Act. At that time, the court issued an injunction preventing the ordinance from going into effect. That is where it stands today.

The City of Austin has filed an appeal of that decision to the Texas Supreme Court. The Texas Court is expected to decide whether or not they will take up that appeal by later this summer. If the Court chooses to do so, the possible outcomes are as follows (and expected to be decided before the end of the year):

  1. The Court could rule against the appellate court and overturn the injunction; or
  2. The Court could uphold the injunction; or
  3. The Court could choose not to rule on the appeal.

Under the second two options (which appear to be the most likely scenarios), the case would go back to District Court for arguments on the merits of the lawsuit. This would essentially start the process all over again with the injunction still in place. Until the Texas Supreme Court says otherwise, businesses in Austin cannot be forced to provide paid sick leave. At this point, this seems like an unlikely outcome, but you never know.

As a reminder, businesses with 15 or more employees at any time during the year much provide 8 days of paid sick leave. Businesses with fewer than 15 employees must provide 6 days.

In the meantime, while this is being worked out in the courts, you can take the following steps to prepare your business for the ordinance going into effect. (1) develop paid sick leave policies and procedures that suit your business; and (2) determine the timing and how you would roll out such policies. Another option is to turn your current paid sick days and paid vacation days into personal time. As long as the combined days meet or exceed the required standards, you will be in compliance.

To learn more about the proposed ordinance and rules, you can visit the City’s website: http://www.austintexas.gov/EarnedSickTime

To read more about AIBA’s position on Paid Sick Leave, see:
City of Austin Mandated Paid Sick Leave Ordinance
Business Coalition Challenges Austin’s Burdensome and Unconstitutional Paid Sick Leave Ordinance
Increased Fines for a Bad Attitude? This Devil is in the Details of Paid Sick Leave
Paid Sick Leave Survey Results
Earned Sick Time Update: The Final Rules
Is This How We Govern? Letter to City Council
The Damage Done

Michael Searle, Board Member, Austin Independent Business Alliance, CEO of Aro Group, LLC, an Austin-Based Consulting Firm, and Executive Director of the Austin Civic Fund contributed to this article.

Convention Center Opinions and Facts

I wrote a blog last month about the petition to call for a public vote on expansion of the Convention Center and how the Hotel Occupancy Funds (HOT) revenue might be allocated. AIBA has endorsed the petition. For more information on this, see www.unconventionalaustin.org. The petition is not calling for an expansion or not, it is calling for a vote on the issue.

In that blog (Expand the Convention Center? The Choice Should Be Yours), I also state my opinion. My opinion was formed from facts I learned at the Visitor Impact Task Force. I shared this information because part of my job as Executive Director of AIBA is to inform our members of issues that might affect them. I clearly stated that is was my opinion.

Council member Flannigan wrote a blog opposing my opinion which he is certainly entitled to do. However his blog reduced the debate to references to Game of Thrones and referring to me as a dragon and a queen who might be controlled by dark money. Frankly, I find it appalling that an Austin City Council Member resorts to calling me names on Facebook because my opinion differs from his. I’ve never seen Game of Thrones so some of the inference is lost on me. But it’s a sad state of affairs when social media name calling takes the place of civil dialogue.

But he did something else. He called out the validity of my factual statements which brings my integrity into question. I must apologize to my readers. I should have sourced my statements in the first blog and I did not do so. I am sourcing them here.

When I learned that the Convention Center produces only 4% of Austin’s tourists but garners more than 70% of all public tourism funding, I was left scratching my head.
Actually I’m wrong here. It’s worse than I stated. In Visit Austin’s Visit Austin Marketing Plan for 2017/2018, page 7 shows that 27.4 million people visited Austin in 2017. In the recent UT Study commissioned by the City of Austin, Frameworks for Placemaking, Alternative Futures for the Austin Convention District, page 260 states that the total estimated attendance at the Convention Center was 546,385. Simple math tells us that’s 1.99%. Let’s just call it 2%. The 4% came from hotel rooms, not visitors. If you include hotel rooms booked by conventions as well as estimated bookings by other sources (hotels.com and other travel services), the Convention Center is responsible for about 4% of booked hotel rooms annually. This is included in Visit Austin Presentation to Tourist Commission, March 18, 2019.

When I learned that SXSW alone represents 30% of the 4%, I started to ask questions.
Visit Austin reported 150,000 attendance for SXSW. SXSW reported registered attendees (those utilizing the Convention Center) were 79,906 including speakers and media. I can’t account for the difference. Both are for 2017, the last year all data is available for. 150,000 is 29% and 79,906 is 14.6% of 546,385.

When I learned that Visit Austin wants to expand the Convention Center to the (now estimated) $1.2 Billion, I started calculating return on investment.
Taking the newest information above, $1.2 Billion (and you know it always costs more than the original estimate) buys us a Visit Austin projected baseline increase of 38% or 200,000 additional attendees per year. This is also from City of Austin, Frameworks for Placemaking, Alternative Futures for the Austin Convention District, Executive Summary, page VI. My question stands. It seems like we could bring in so many more visitors with investing in other local venues.

I encourage you to sign the petition (see UnconventionalAustin.org) so that we may all have a vote. The Austin community voted on the Convention Center when the city proposed putting it at Auditorium Shores and we voted again on the last expansion. Why are our leaders so against a vote this time?

I also encourage you to educate yourself through UnconventionalAustin.org and other sources so that, if given the opportunity, you may cast an educated vote.

Expand the Convention Center? The Choice Should Be Yours

More than a year ago AIBA became involved with the Tourism Task Force in working to reallocate some of the Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) to promoting local business to tourists. After all, we are a huge attraction to tourists. Tourists don’t come here to experience what they have at home. They come here to experience the flavor of our local culture. And local business is one of the greatest expressions of that local flavor. Unfortunately, we weren’t successful.

I didn’t start out being against expansion of the Convention Center. I really didn’t know enough to be for or against it. But what I learned sitting in hours and hours of meetings and presentations enlightened me and left me with an opinion—a very strong opinion.

When I learned that the Convention Center produces only 4% of Austin’s tourists but garners more than 70% of all public tourism finding, I was left scratching my head. When I learned that SXSW alone represents 30% of the 4%, I started to ask questions. When I learned that Visit Austin wants to expand the Convention Center to the (now estimated) $1.2 Billion, I started calculating return on investment. It didn’t take long for me to realize this makes no sense. The convention industry is flat. Even if the Convention Center saw a 50% increase in business (extremely unlikely, when did you last see a 50% increase in business?), that’s only a 2% increase in visitors. Cultural tourism (that’s us local businesses) is what’s growing.

All this led me to ask “If Austin has $1.2 Billion to invest in attracting tourists, how could that money be better spent?” If 96% of our visitors come for reasons other than an event at the Convention Center, what could we do to attract more? What could we do that could also benefit Austinites too? More arts venues? Taking care of our parks? Supporting the music community that we all love 365? Bring more tourists into local businesses so that money could circulate all over Austin? Enhance something in every part of town instead of just downtown? The possibilities are almost endless. And this is where I landed. Squarely against expansion of the Convention Center. It doesn’t make sense on any level.

But this isn’t my decision. Right now, it’s not yours either. The HOT revenue is a community asset that should be treated as such. AIBA has members who would like to see the Convention Center expanded. They believe this could be good for their business. I can respect that. But as a community asset, I believe it should be up to us, all of us, how it is allocated. While I may be against expansion, out of respect for all our members AIBA is not taking a position on expansion. My role here is educational advocacy—informing you of the facts so you can make your own decisions.

However we are partnering with SOS Alliance and others to give you the vote. We’re doing this through a petition to have a ballot measure added to call for public votes when spending billions of your dollars. In the coming weeks you’ll be hearing more from us about the petition. To be clear, the petition isn’t to stop expansion of the Convention Center but to let the public decide. I hope you can all get behind this choice.

For now, read more information on this at www.unconventionalaustin.org. It’s still under construction but all the basics are there. If you have any questions or just want to talk about this, please don’t hesitate to contact me at rebecca@ibuyaustin.com.

AIBA is endorsing the petition to allow the public to vote on Convention Center expansion, not advocating on the expansion itself. The opinion expressed in this blog is mine alone and not necessarily that of AIBA, our partners or sponsors.

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—Nolan Gore, Top Choice Lawn Care

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