Political battle over Austin Convention Center Expansion heating up

Austin

Opposing groups are popping up over the issue.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Friday, a group against Austin Convention Center expansion submitted a 30,000-signature petition calling for a public vote on the matter.

The Unconventional Austin PAC wants November voters to decide whether their approval should be required for any convention center expansion.

The petition also lays out new requirements for how the city uses its “Hotel Occupancy Tax.”

“Every measure of success for the convention center we have has failed,” said Bill Bunch, who represents the PAC and opposes convention center expansion.

Hours after Unconventional Austin submitted its petition, political consultant Jim Wick was at City Hall, launching his own PAC to counter the group’s message.

Wick is also Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s former campaign manager.

Wick told KXAN Friday that Unconventional Austin was a ‘serious threat’ to undermining the democratic system in Austin.

“I think they [Unconventional Austin] are a serious threat. I don’t think they’re a serious threat to expansion,” he said.

Friday’s activity was the latest in what appears to be an intensifying political battle over convention center expansion.

Back in May, City Council unanimously voted on a master plan to expand the convention center.

The $1.2 billion-dollar project would revitalize the area, improve transportation, and preserve the former Palm Elementary School, which closed in 1976. 

The current event space would be demolished, and the new center would be west of Trinity and have room for private development. 

“We have a unanimous vote by the city council to explore this,” said Wick. “We have a unanimous vote by the tourism commission.”

Debate over Tourism dollars

The Convention Center expansion project would be funded by Hotel Occupancy Taxes.

The HOT tax rate in Austin would increase to 17% — that would include the 9% local hotel tax, the existing 2% venue tax, plus the 6% state tax. 

Unconventional Austin’s petition would limit the Convention Center to receiving 34% of the total annual Hotel Occupancy Tax Revenue. 

It also would require that 15% or more of that HOT revenue go to a historic preservation fund, and 15% or more go to the cultural arts fund, with the remaining dollars going to enhance Austin’s “cultural tourism industry.”

Bunch says he wants to prioritize tourism spending for cultural and heritage tourism.

“We can fund promotional programs directly to the live music industry, to arts, to local small business,” he said. “We can support tourism-related transportation.”

City attorneys, however, have argued that Texas law is strict about what bed tax money can be spent on.

“[Unconventional Austin] has a very loose interpretation of the statute,” said Wick. “But I think under the statute, it’s pretty clean cut, what you can do with the money.”

It will take several weeks for the clerk’s office at City Hall to validate Unconventional Austin’s petition.

The city tells KXAN it usually sends petitions to a third party at the University of Texas.

After that, City Council has 10 days to adopt the petition or send it to voters as planned.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler also responded to the petition filed on Friday:

The community needs to know who is behind this effort and who is paying for it. We had a unanimous vote by one of the most progressive city councils in our city’s history with near unanimously favorable community testimony. We have unanimous votes by the Tourism Commission and the Visitor Impact Task Force, with representatives of the music and arts commissions and communities.

We’ve had four studies that have looked at this issue and the council has discussed it for years. All agree that we can get hundreds of millions of dollars of community benefits for homeless services, our music and arts industries, and preserving our important historic sites like the Palm School. All paid for by tourists, not local property or sales taxes.

Who is paying to mislead the public and oppose these priorities?

Austin Mayor Steve Adler

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