On an early Saturday morning, City Council members met to discuss aspects of the Tourism Development Fund, which city staff hope will help Williamsburg compete in a hotly-contested tourism market.
City manager Marvin Collins first made the idea of a tourism fund at a January Council retreat. He pitched the fund as an opportunity to help the city usher in an era of “generational change” in the city’s effort to attract visitors.
Tax increases are vital to financing the fund. Council is considering raising meal and room taxes from 5 percent to 7 percent, and they are also considering the addition of an admission tax, which would be anywhere from 3.5 to 7 percent.
Karen Riordan, president and CEO of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance, said she and her organization still would like the city to consider regional approaches to improving tourism in the area.
“We continue to urge Council to look at alternatives,” she said, noting that she does support tourism development funds in general.
One of the options city manager Marvin Collins presented to Council — which entailed charging a 3.5 percent admissions tax and 7 percent for the room and meal taxes — seemed better for city businesses than charging 7 percent across the board.
“We think that may be less harmful to the community,” she said.
A five-person committee appointed by City Council would vet projects to be paid for with development fund money. Council decided that three people would come from tourism-related careers and the other members would be selected at large by council.
There is no set list of projects where fund money would help finance as of yet.
Rick Overy, vice chairman of the Williamsburg Economic Development Authority and partner at a Williamsburg- based wealth management firm called Compass Wealth Strategies, said people have reason for concern since they don’t know where the new money will go.
“We should all be wary when government wants to tax first and have us trust them to spend the money the right way later,” he said.
Mayor Paul Freiling said Council would have a list of projects they'd like to see completed at their June 10 meeting. Those projects, he said, would be weighed equally as any others
Vice mayor Scott Foster said the idea of taking a regional approach to tourism works on its face, but it could take far too long for York County and James City County to join suit. Since the city can act now, they should, he said.
“The political appetite in those two jurisdictions does not support additional revenue,” he said. “It’s politics. The city is the only one that has the legislative authority to act.”
The next City Council meeting is July 13, where Council may vote on whether to approve the fund and the requisite tax increases. They have the option of raising the meal and room tax and phasing in the admissions tax in 2019, according to city manager Marvin Collins.