The 2016 Engage Class completed its Tourism Day on April 13th. There were plenty of issues to discuss, debate and tackle.
Class member Adam Seligman highlights the impact tourism has on our community and the importance of sustaining an “endless season.”
What was the most important issue/debate discussed during Tourism Day? What is the best way to solve or address the issue?
As an economic indicator, tourism (along with agriculture and real estate) is vital to Palm Beach County now and in the future. The biggest issue facing the County is how do we protect and increase our tourism dollars. In order to keep the tourism dollars coming to Palm Beach County (“PBC”), we need to maintain world class amenities, cultural destinations and lodging.
Last year, PBC had 6.9 million visitors that used 16,632 hotel rooms and whose economic impact was $7.6 billion dollars, or $240 per second. PBC is trying to focus on ways to create a sustainable county with great tourism attractions. We toured the Kravis Center, Conventions Center and new Hilton West Palm Beach, that will drive more business and conventions to PBC. The Kravis Center alone last year put on over 600 performances for 400,000 “guests” from 3700 artists.
The big debate we discussed was the new penny tax increase. Palm Beach County voters could see a referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot asking them to approve a one-cent increase in the six-cent sales tax. If passed, tourists and locals could spend more than $2.7 billion over 10 years to improve aging roads, bridges, schools and other publicly owned facilities, update school technology and finance the cultural building boom that’s on the horizon. The tax increase would end in 10 years or whenever the projects are paid for. According to a recent study, cultural groups plan to add more than 700,000 square feet of facilities in the next 10 years. The cultural councils are asking for nearly $190 million for 26 cultural building projects, plus an additional $38 million for projects that might qualify in the future. The requests range from $50,000 for repairs to the Boca Raton Children’s Museum’s historic buildings to $25 million for projects such as the Norton Museum of Art’s expansion and a South County arts complex that would be shared by several groups. Also on the list is $20 million for a mid-size performance hall at a to-be-determined location.
What was the 2nd most important issue/debate discussed during the Session Day? What is the best way to solve or address the issue?
Another issue was how to drive business, extend visitor stays and convince the visitors to come back again. A big part of this discussion came down to available hotels rooms (more are being built), bringing in more conventions and the feasibility of building a walk way bridge over Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach.
Okeechobee Boulevard serves as the West Palm Beach’s gateway, but as a gateway to 40,000 cars heading east and west. It is not always safe for pedestrians crossing from the north and south, between the convention center and the new Hilton hotel and the city’s premier shopping plaza, CityPlace. Prodded by a citizens’ petition that quickly fielded 1,500 signatures, city and Palm Beach County officials are preparing to meet with traffic engineers and state transportation department officials to discuss the possibility of a walkway over the eight-lane boulevard, as well as street-level safety improvements.
The question is how to address the problem. Such walkways, usually accessible to the disabled, typically cost millions of dollars. A recent “walkability” study the city commissioned did not call for a skywalk, but did say the city should narrow the Okeechobee lanes from 12 feet to 10, to make the boulevard easier to cross and make it look more pedestrian friendly. The issue is also complicated by turf. The street is actually a state road, State Road 704. Traffic lights are operated by Palm Beach County. The city owns part of the median. And the convention center hotel owns another part.
What can the broader leadership community do to solve/address these issues.
The community has been working on and will continue to work on creating a sustainable “endless season” in PBC. This means that tourists come to PBC not only during the “Season” but year round. We also need to focus on other important issues that drive tourism but may not be obvious – such as transportation, weather, beach erosions, employment and social services. PBC also needs to challenge local communities to brand themselves as tourist destinations. Delray Beach, for example, has spent decades and millions of dollars to shed its former nickname of “Dull-Ray” by changing how they dealt with safety, policy, beautification projects, landscaping, restaurants, parking, infrastructure and parking. They have built free parking garages, created artist zones and leveraged the bars/restaurants to create a vital downtown. Delray’s success can be a model to help other municipalities in PBC and PBC must do all it can to help the municipalities to do so. Without teamwork, the dream of an “endless season” will not become a reality.