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.

AIBA Advocacy Reaches New Heights

We recently created a campaign for our May membership drive that we posted on Facebook. The campaign included an animated graphic of a gathering group of armadillos. Apparently Facebook thought our post was politically subversive and blocked us from boosting it. We even asked for a second review and were denied again. Armadillos a national threat? Are these gathering dillos preparing to interfere with national elections? Is the dillo an immigration issue?

We decided to investigate. Maybe it’s not our charging heard of fierce beastly dillos (oh, I mean our gathering gathering group of friendly Indy’s). Maybe it’s what we said. Our original copy read “Come join us in the only nonprofit organization that supports, promotes and advocates for locally owned businesses.” Seems benign. But we removed the word “advocates” and Facebook accepted it. 

I know our advocacy has made a difference in Austin but had no idea how powerful our voice really is. When your advocacy for local business is considered a national threat…WOW!

If you’re not yet a member, join us!

AIBA on KOOP Radio? Maybe

If you’ve been to a recent AIBA event, you may have heard rumors about AIBA possibly having a weekly radio show on KOOP Radio. The rumors are true! We don’t have a show yet (there’s a long process) but AIBA has applied for a show on local business and the community.

Did you know that KOOP is the only co-op radio station in the country? With the exception of two paid full-time staff, the station is run by dedicate volunteers. Koop has been an AIBA member for years and we’ve supported one another by trading advertising for underwriting and promoting each other. We’re thrilled and honored to be in the running for a radio show.

To have our own show, we have to be programmers which involves lots of training and volunteer time. I’ve been on the road to becoming a programmer since late October. I have been interning with Lisa Scheps on her show, Off Stage and On the Air for five weeks and have five more to go. I’ve completed my station and FCC training and am starting my technical equipment training in a few days.

Dixie Patrick, AIBA Membership Manager, is in the training pipeline right behind me. Seed Terranova, IBIZ District Director, will be training in a few months. This will give us great backup and make the show more sustainable.

What’s it all about?
The show will be called The Localist—The heartbeat of Austin’s local business community—and cover Latest From Your Locals, Current Events, Local Stories, Advocacy, IBIZ Districts and Resources. We plan to have two guests per show to weigh in on the show topic. But we’ll also want to tell your stories. Do you have an engaging story about starting or running your business? As we get closer, I’ll be asking for ideas.

We’re not there yet. We may not be selected for a show. We won’t be finished with our training until May so watch for updates and soon we’ll be able to say “stay tuned”!

Earned Sick Time Update: The Final Rules

At the time of this writing, two things have happened:
1. The implementation of the Ordinance is in limbo. Originally passed to take effect on October 1, 2018, lawsuits, appeals and counter suits have put this date on hold. Only the courts can activate this so it’s in a wait and see position. Of course the Texas Legislature (in session in January) can kill the ordinance passed by the Austin City Council, rendering it null and void.
So what is a business owner to do? The on, off, on, off again process has left the local business community confused about implementation. My advice is to treat your employees like family (in all the good ways), be fair always and generous when you can. Prepare for the regulations and stand by.
2. The Rules for Investigation of Complaints and Assessment of Civil Penalties under City Code Chapter 4-90 (the Earned Sick Time Ordinance) have been approved and contain a couple of surprises. The entire document is 411 pages and includes comments and answers during a public participation period addressing, not the ordinance, but the rules. Most all of the comments are contained in an 80 page chart which I did read.
At the end of this input, the city made a few changes to the rules. The most concerning is that they increased the penalties to businesses, effectively doubling the fines of businesses with fewer than 14 employees. Just to note, of 80 pages of comments, 12 people requested that the fines be raised and thus it was so.
The time investigators have to schedule interviews was shortened from 10 days to 8 days. The time to complete a final determination was shortened from 120 days to 75 days. 10 people requested some form of shortened process time.
While the most requested change (from both sides of the issue) was to add an appeals process. 13 people requested this. There is no option for an appeal of a determination in the rules and none was added.
No request for any adjustment from a business or business entity was granted.
Once again, it appears that divisiveness rules the day and local business loses.

The Damage Done

Dear Local Businesses,
I’ve spent more than 10 years advocating for you at city hall. Some of that effort included educating and wooing city officials. Some of that time was spent fighting for you even when the odds weren’t in our favor.
I’m not one to shy away from a good fight for a good cause. But the fights this year have not been good, they’ve been divisive by design. They’ve been created to make a point. While the victors relish their success at any cost, there doesn’t seem to be any acknowledgment of the damage left behind. The damage of disregard and disrespect of local business. The damage of allowing the demonization of local business at city hall.
I have been deeply affected by this damage and find myself in a dark place. The community of local businesses that I care so much for is under attack. Our beloved local businesses have been labeled the enemy. This is a new reality that is difficult to face and even harder to comprehend. It’s led me to many sleepless nights and a lot of soul searching. Not only for me, but for all the amazing local business owners I know. This is painful. I know you to be kind, supportive community folks who strive to do good and turn a modest profit, not at the expense of your employees but in concert with your team. How has an orchestrated political agenda come to define us otherwise?
Should public policymaking include great debates? Of course. Should stakeholders fight hard for what they believe in? Certainly. But we don’t destroy one another in our quest to win—until now.
Many of you know that Jim Murphy recently sold Sweetish Hill Bakery. I wrote to him saying AIBA would miss him. His reply was shocking:
 “And I have to say that council meeting was a real turning point for me. I walked out of there and decided I was done owing a business in Austin. And it had nothing to do with the Sick Pay ordinance, but rather the way business owners were treated by the council and the Mayor.”
While Jim took immediate and drastic action, he is not alone in this sentiment. Who believes that destroying someone’s business so painstakingly built is acceptable damage?
Austin is filled with smart, creative and compassionate people. We are better than this. I’ve grappled with how to engage in challenging this new reality. I am unwilling to damage others in pursuit of, well, anything. I am unwilling to demonize employees or anyone else to make a point. I care too deeply about the importance of having thriving local business to let short-sighted political agendas divide us.
I am an unapologetic and optimistic idealist. I believe that the only effective way to solve community problems is to work together. I believe that most people are inherently good and do try to do the right thing. I believe in you, Austin. And that is the light that brings me out of this dark place.
AIBA has begun charting a path to bring us together to solve our issues with A Better Process Proposal. This was crafted with a team of two conservatives and two liberals working together to produce a draft that gives us a starting point for gathering the best ideas to address community problems in a way that achieves the best long-term results for everyone-—employees, businesses and the public.
Thank you awesome local business owners for being who you are. You are my light.
Warmest regards as always,
Rebecca
Rebecca Melançon, Executive Director, AIBA