Tourism has good year

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By Lou Elliott Jones

   When the Deepwater Horizon started spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico you could almost feel the fear among folks in Cedar Key whose livings depend on tourism and seafood.
   While no oil has reached Levy County and seafood purveyors are battling to win back public confidence in the area’s pristine products– most of which are shipped out of the area– tourism that is measured by heads in beds is doing fine.
   In the bimonthly meeting of the Levy County Tourist Development Council on Sept. 23, Levy County Visitor Bureau Director Carol McQueen reported that the TDC has collected $144,161.41 as of Aug. 31 in bed tax revenue.
   The bed tax – 2 percent of a guest’s lodging bill– is paid by tourists staying in transient lodging such as hotels, motels, RV parks and campgrounds.
   The news is good because McQueen’s budget for this year estimated the tax would bring in $145,000. “We didn’t think we would get more than $140,000.”
While McQueen cautioned the council members “September is always usually pretty bad” for tourism, hotelier Stanley Bair said she has had a good year at the Island Hotel in Cedar Key.
   “Our business is up,” Bair said. “That is why I could not submit in good conscience a claim (for oil spill damages). We had people coming to the hotel that said they’re running from the smell of the oil in Destin.”
   The council members also discussed the possibility of giving McQueen a pay increase. In making her report to the council McQueen, a county employee, noted that the Levy County Commission is not giving a pay raise to county workers in the coming year ó the fourth year they have not had a pay increase.
   “I think it’s terrible that the county is not giving raises,” said TDC Member Helen Ciallella who pushed for recommending a raise for McQueen to the commission.
   “I’m still a county department head and I should follow ... I mean it would be awkward to get a raise,” said McQueen.
   “I don’t care what the county’s doing. We’re all in the same boat,” Ciallella said. “Three years is excessive.” But Ciallella said she did not want to get McQueen in trouble with the county commission which would have to approve any council reccommendation.
    Council member Debra Jones recommended the council consider a bonus. Jones who sits on the Williston City Council said the city has paid full time employees a $1,000 Christmas bonus and part-time workers $500 in lieu of raises.
   During the same meeting the council members discussed the challenge of growing Levy’s tourism industry while there is a limited number of beds - places for them to stay. And in the down economy there are few plans for construction.
As a result the only way the county can grow its bed tax is if lodging prices rise or the number of beds is increased. Or it could seek approval to collect another 1 percent in tax.
   While Cedar Key has the lion’s share of hotel rooms, cottages and condos available for rental, Chiefland has three hotel/motel operations and Williston has one motel.      The remainder of transient lodging is in in state parks campgounds and RV parks and campgrounds.
   Jones noted that Williston boasts 140 available RV spaces and business is picking up at the city’s airport. She expressed the thought that maybe something could come to Williston as a result.
   “What is more marketing going to do,” said Helen Koehler, TDC chair. “Only so many people can get in.” She said there are no plans to bring new lodging along the county’s two main highways, U.S. 19 and U.S. 27, nor has she heard of any new cottages or condos coming to Cedar Key.
   “There are no beds in this county,” said Ciallella. She noted that there is nothing availble int he southern part of the county. “What I see in Yankeetown and Inglis is people coming over to go fishing.”
   McQueen said she had hoped the council could set money aside to construct a welcome center to bring visitors into the area. “They’re not going to stop unless you pull them in,” she said. “And they will pull into a nice welcome center.”
   And she said with some money in the TDC’s reserve fund they could commission a marketing study ont he county’s tourism and what can be done.
   In other business, the council approved the budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. The final budget for tourism is $311,075 with $85,250 going toward administration, $116,896 to tourism development and $108,929 for tourism promotion. The budget is up from $303,515 for the current year but down from $320,945 from the previous year.