Orange County approves tourist-tax spending plan for UCF, convention center and arts

Of nearly $800 million in TDT funds, the bulk is earmarked for an Orange County Convention Center expansion.

click to enlarge Orange County Convention Center - Shutterstock
Orange County Convention Center
The board of Orange County commissioners, after a marathon six-hour meeting Tuesday, agreed to use nearly $800 million in public tourist tax development funding to pay for an expansion of the exceptionally large Orange County Convention Center, an enhancement to UCF’s football stadium, and local arts.

County commissioners voted 5–2 (commissioners Bonilla and Wilson dissenting) to approve a $560 million funding request from the Orange County Convention Center, already the third-largest in the nation, bigger in size than the U.S. Pentagon, as the Orlando Sentinel’s opinion writer Scott Maxwell has aptly pointed out.

The elephant in the room — the massive expansion of virtual meeting tools like Zoom that mean travel is no longer necessary for all large meetings and presentations — was not directly addressed, although a representative for the convention center said that attendance over the last fiscal year was on par with pre-pandemic levels.

The board also unanimously approved $88 million in tourist tax funds for the University of Central Florida, which had halved its original request of $176.6 million. They approved $75 million over five years for the county’s application review committee, and $69 million to support local arts and cultural affairs groups.

Orange County’s tourist development tax, also known as the hotel tax, is a 6% levy added to the cost of a hotel room, Airbnb or other short-term lodging. During the 2022 fiscal year alone, it generated $336 million for the county. State law, however, restricts how that pot of money can be used, requiring that at least 40% of funds are used “to promote and advertise tourism.”

A portion of funds could go toward public infrastructure projects, if certain conditions are met, but historically, the funds have largely subsidized the tourism industry and professional sports.

Orange County has a task force made up of tourism reps, representatives from various Orange County cities, commissioner appointees and a labor union rep, all of whom make their own funding recommendations based on the submitted proposals. Those recommendations go to the mayor and commissioners for discussion and approval.

What didn’t make the cut

Not all funding proposals recommended by the Orange County task force this year, despite pushback from some, made the final cut.

Tension during Tuesday’s meeting was heightened by news released shortly beforehand from the county comptroller that TDT collections in August fell for the fifth month in a row, compared to the same time last year.

Several requests this year — including $400 million for the city-owned Camping World Stadium, $256 million for Orlando’s Amway Center and $145 million for the Dr. Phillips Center — were sidelined, after commissioners grilled representatives over the community benefits their investments would realistically provide and asked for more detailed financials to support their requests.

“There’s got to be some financial responsibility,” said commissioner Mayra Uribe, following a presentation from Camping World Stadium. “That's one thing that I commended about the convention center,” Uribe added. “They have full-time jobs, full benefits, all that. We can't say the same for this venue.”

The Pentagon-sized Orange County Convention Center does staff some union-represented food service workers (who won meaningful gains in a new labor contract they were prepared to strike over in January).

A rep for the facility on Tuesday boasted the convention center’s 472 full-time employees, 500 consistent part-time employees, and thousands of jobs in total.

The convention center, which ended its last fiscal year with 1.5 million attendees and a $2.8 billion economic impact, previously got an OK from the county commission for its expansion funds several years ago, reportedly at the urging of Big Tourism, but halted the controversial expansion during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proposal has come under scrutiny in the past for whether it can really provide the return on investment county leaders are literally banking on.

There was also an awkward moment where Wilson addressed a few of the OCCC workers who came to speak in favor of their employer's funding pitch during public comment.

“I’m concerned that they feel threatened right now with this discussion, and I wanted to find out what they were told internally,” said Wilson.

“I want to make sure that everyone understands that support for a new building — you know, a brick-and-mortar building — is not equivalent to support for those workers,” she added. “We have already approved a budget that will continue to maintain …continue to support the existing infrastructure inside of that convention center, including those workers.”

Sharing concerns about this pitch and other funding proposals from sports stadiums, some members of the community have called for an independent economic and social impact study to be conducted ahead of major funding commitments.

“Only a fair outside consultant able to conduct an unbiased analysis will be able to bring perspective to how reasonable the requests from these venues are,” said Michael Perkins, who spoke during public comment. “Collecting more tax revenue without putting it to use to serve the true needs of our community is counterproductive.”

Dr. Kelly Sumrad, a former mayoral candidate, activist and assistant professor in the Tourism, Events & Attractions Department at UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management, also supported the idea of an economic impacts study.

“We need to assess the economic implications of supporting an industry that pays poverty wages.”

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“We need a legitimate economic impact study that assesses not only the direct and indirect money that's coming into the convention center,” she shared during public comment, singling out the sprawling facility. “We need to assess the economic implications of supporting an industry that pays poverty wages.”

“If the people are not provided for,” she added, “the industry will collapse.”

Mention of “poverty wages” during public comment — echoing similar feedback from union reps on the county’s task force, who wanted employers’ treatment of their workers to factor into their funding proposals — evidently was then factored into the venues’ presentations Tuesday.

It seemed to help sweeten the deal for some; not so much for others.

Camping World Stadium

Steve Hogan, CEO of Florida Citrus Sports (a nonprofit tenant at Camping World Stadium), emphasized the stadium as a “community venue” that invests in its surrounding community.

“We wanted this stadium literally to lift up the neighborhoods that sat in its shadow,” said Hogan, a founding partner of the “business leader”-led Lift Orlando organization.

He repeated that line at least three times.

click to enlarge Camping World Stadium - Photo via Camping World Stadium/Facebook
Photo via Camping World Stadium/Facebook
Camping World Stadium

The stadium wanted $400 million from the county’s TDT fund to expand its seating capacity and to invest in other stadium enhancements to remain competitive with other Florida venues.

“I can assure you, Taylor Swift may love to play here in Orlando,” Hogan quipped, “but $1,000 a seat when you have 6,000 [seats] less here than you do in Tampa, where are you going to go?”

Orlando needs the investment, he argued, to bring in more tourists and their spending money.

Other cities are doing it, he said, pointing to a potential $1 billion investment the city of Jacksonville is considering for its football stadium, home to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

What Hogan didn’t mention is that the $1 billion investment of public money, requested by the Jaguars, is largely unpopular with Jacksonville voters.

Just 6 percent of people polled by the University of North Florida in September said they supported the $1 billion figure, while 33% said they could support a $250 to $500 million investment.

When asked if they would support the $1 billion figure if it meant that the Jaguars would leave Jacksonville otherwise, 47% of respondents still said no.

Commissioner Uribe wasn’t keen on the county investing in the stadium, since it’s really a City of Orlando structure. “I have always said from day one, I don't agree that we should be bonding this,” she said. “I think the city should be bonding it, just like they do with Amway.”

Conveniently, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer was in the audience, piping up during public comment to share that he was supportive of the task force’s funding proposals for the venues.

Uribe wanted to see financial commitments from other entities. “Who else is putting skin in the game?” she asked. “Because this [$400 million] is a high number.”

Amway Center

Similar tensions surrounding city versus county funding were apparent during the Amway Center’s presentation.

The Amway Center, home of the Orlando Magic basketball team (and DeSantis donor apparently) and founded by the billionaire conservative DeVos family, was established as a public-private partnership between Orlando and Orange County.

This year, it asked for $256 million over 10 years from the county for major capital repairs, arguing that the elderly, completely ancient 13-year-old facility needed some major sprucing up. The city would also pitch in, separately, per their presentation.

click to enlarge Amway Center - via
Amway Center

Like Camping World, Amway Center rep Allen Johnson said they needed these upgrades to remain competitive with other venues, adding that keeping up with technological advances is their biggest challenge.

Commissioner Bonilla questioned what community benefit the Amway Center actually brings to downtown Orlando, as an area that’s been struggling (and suffered during the pandemic) for some time.

She also questioned the high price tag for what she viewed as facility “maintenance” projects — a term Johnson disputed, arguing they needed some major replacements.

Uribe also questioned whether such a major investment was warranted without a firm commitment from the Orlando Magic that they would stay at the Amway.

Johnson rushed to say the team “loved” being there and that they’d given no indication of a desire to move elsewhere.

Dr. Phillips Center

The Dr. Phillips Center, also located in downtown Orlando, asked the county for a $145 million investment in their $170 million master plan, which includes a 750-seat theater, outdoor amphitheater, and roof garden event space.

Less than Amway and Camping World, the commissioners’ questioning around this investment hinted at a perceived elitist undertone: How would investment in this facility, with its pricey tickets for Broadway productions and the like — benefit all of Orange County, not just those who can afford to see the Dr. Phil's shows?

click to enlarge Chicago at the Dr. Phillips Center - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Chicago at the Dr. Phillips Center

The presentation by Kathy Ramsberger, president and CEO of Dr. Phillips, had somewhat anticipated this reaction. “One of our goals when we started this in 2007,” said Ramsberger, “[was] how do you take a building that comes across as elite, for very few, and make it feel like it's for everyone — visitors as well as our local community? She listed off educational programs they offer in schools, free public activities (like FusionFest) and other engagement opportunities, particularly for youth.

Scott and Uribe (who represent some of the poorer parts of Orange County) were still a bit skeptical, asking which schools in particular they serve, although most of the feedback from the commission was complimentary of the performing arts center.

In practical terms, Uribe also asked candidly what the center planned to do if they couldn’t raise the rest of the funds they needed — beyond TDT funding, through other donors — to fully realize their master plan.

“I think, if there were some funding to get started, we would start with a smaller portion of the master plan and then hope to be invited back for future collections of TDT when it turns around a little bit stronger to complete the rest of the project,” Ramsberger shared.

She was the only one of the five presenters that we noticed to acknowledge the recent dips in monthly TDT collections.

University of Central Florida

UCF, like the Dr. Phillips Center, also got a lot of praise from commissioners, after presenting their pitch for a $88 million investment in their football stadium.

Commissioner Wilson praised the school for its achievements in both academics and athletics. Bonilla, a UCF alumnus, acknowledged she’d seen for herself how happy children and families were when they attended games, but asked how they’d managed to fundraise before.

UCF Knights - photo by Jeremy Reper
photo by Jeremy Reper
UCF Knights

“I will say partnerships working with the community, working with donors, we've raised privately about $200 million that has gone into those [sports] facilities over a period of about 20 years,” a representative for the university responded.

Uribe, who joked (sort of) she’ll be “writing a check” to UCF next year for her own child’s attendance, commended UCF leadership for their commitment to cultivating an inclusive environment for people of diverse backgrounds, and for ensuring ticket availability for their students.

“Even watching over Hispanic Heritage Month, your commitment to make students feel comfortable in your university wherever they are, whatever their background is, means a lot,” she said.

Other commissioners, for their part, grilled UCF President Alexander Cartwright and athletics director Terry Mohajir on their stadium’s job opportunities, wages, their economic impact across the region by way of hotel stays and whatnot — as they did for all other venues that presented.

The fact that their pitch was for an amount much less than requests from Amway and Camping World probably helped.

Cuts, cuts, and more cuts

“The bad news again, though, is that we cannot afford to do everything that has been requested,” Mayor Demings admitted, after all five venues had presented their final pitches.

Demings had issued a memo last month sharing that he favored investments in Camping World, Amway, OCCC, the Application Review Committee and Arts & Cultural Affairs, but felt that the proposals from UCF and Dr. Phillips could wait.

Demings asserted, at the top of the meeting, that no member of county commission had “been lobbied by some constituency group” regarding the funding proposals.

But commissioners Bonilla and Wilson (sort of), along with some members of the public, expressed support for the idea of an independent economic impact study — specifically, one that isn’t conducted by Visit Orlando, a tourism and marketing arm of the region which receives TDT funds, representing a clear conflict of interest.

“That’s being financially responsible,” Bonilla argued.

“They’re essentially getting a third of this money,” Uribe added, expressing dismay with Visit Orlando’s lack of county oversight. “They’re the only board in Orange County that doesn't have a county commissioner or mayor on the executive board. They’re the only board that doesn’t have to present their budget to us,” she said.

Commissioner Mike Scott, the youngest and newest member of the board, admitted, “It doesn't hurt to get some like fresh eyes, or a different perspective, or just to kind of co-sign or endorse what you've already worked out with your internal accounting folks.”

“While I want to approve and move forward some things, I feel that if we do that and we don't discuss Visit Orlando, we are hurting ourselves in the entire process,” said Uribe.

According to a county news release, the board of county commissioners will move forward with a work session to discuss its future contract with Visit Orlando.

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McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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