There is plenty of skepticism to go around these days when talk turns to “progress” in Volusia County.
After all, doubt and uncertainty are the natural precipitate of lies.
When those people and institutions we trust tell us things that are counter to what we actually experience – suspicion results.
Then cynicism takes hold.
In a duplicitous attempt to deflect attention from the very real problems we face here on Florida’s Fun Coast, many of those we have elected and appointed to represent our interests – and more specifically, those officials and organizations with a parasitic reliance on public funds – soft-soap us with misleading, often grandiose tales of “game changing” projects – always painting a rosy picture with dubious statistics and studies which bear no resemblance to ambient conditions.
They craft a narrative to fit the “Big Idea du jour” – regardless of how nonsensical that stratagem may seem to those of us dependent upon Volusia’s struggling artificial economy for our livelihoods.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal – which perilously walks a frayed tightrope across the deep divide between feel-good corporate marketing pap and our ghastly reality – recently presented the enigmatic conundrum, “Tourism Tax Mystery.”
The piece, written by the talented Jim Abbott, asked the simple question, “If Bike Week roared, why were bed taxes down in March?”
By all accounts, Bike Week 2018 drew hundreds of thousands to Volusia County – the best turnout in years by some estimates – yet, the Halifax Area Advertising Authority reported that bed tax collections in Daytona Beach were down some 3.4 percent in March, compared to the same period one year ago.
Interestingly, the report confirmed “…that decline was in sharp contrast to collections that jumped 14 percent for the same period in West Volusia County, and 10 percent in Southeast Volusia, an area that includes New Smyrna Beach.”
The local drop was also counter to regional collections which were up a whopping 9 to 18 percent.
What passes for our “tourism leaders” – folks who are totally dependent upon bed taxes for their very existence – naturally fawn optimistically, claiming that while “average daily rates” were down, occupancy was up by 6 percent in March.
That means motels dropped their prices in an attempt to put heads in beds.
They also rely on some weird voodoo ritual to estimate annual visitor counts – a ‘methodology’ used since the 1970’s (?) that takes actual occupancy data and survey results, then doubles the actual figures to account for “overnight visitors who might be staying with relatives, in privately owned condos or homes or other accommodations.”
Most smart business people, in other words, anyone operating an enterprise in the “real world” – understand that, over time, markets change. And they use hard numbers and trustworthy statistical information to their advantage when anticipating future trends.
Clearly, in east Volusia and beyond, the growing popularity of short-term rentals and other “nontraditional” accommodations offered by “peer-to-peer” sharing sites, such as Airbnb, have reduced bed tax collections.
In fact, officials report that revenues received from these nontraditional sources made up approximately 20 percent of the county’s total collections.
According to resident mystic Evelyn Fine, president of Mid-Florida Marketing & Research – who has been telling county tourism officials what they want to hear for years – short-term rentals often charge lower rates than traditional hotels, which naturally results in less tourism taxes.
Look, I’m no expert, but the market patterns reported by the Daytona Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau and legitimate tourism analysts tells me that visitors to Daytona Beach aren’t interested in luxuriant “Five Star” resort accommodations at $300+ per night.
I mean, you don’t have to have an advanced degree from the Mori Hosseini School of Hospitality Management to cypher that one, right?
So, what do our economic development guru’s and elected officials in Volusia County do?
They aggressively court and “incentivize” speculative developers intent on building extravagant theme hotels and multi-story luxury condominiums ranging to more than $1.4 million (in a market where the median sales price of a condo was around $207,000 last month).
They seem intent on flooding the beachside with upscale accommodations in a market that has proven it can’t support a Bojangles Chicken n’ Biscuits – even if it is counter to every prediction of the hospitality and tourism industry.
How these speculative developers spend their investor’s money is no real concern of mine – but when our local governments buy in to risky countertrends – I take notice.
Especially in a place where good ideas go to die.
Everyone understands the economic consequences when supply exceeds demand.
If the Great Recession taught us anything, it is that when a dominant segment of the economy – like real estate or tourism – crashes and burns, it can have devastating implications for dependent industries as well.
Unfortunately, our ‘powers that be’ never learn from the mistakes of the past.
That’s a perilous combination.
Consider the lukewarm recommendations of the much-heralded Beachside Redevelopment Committee – a last ditch effort which gathered our best and brightest minds, met monthly for over a year, frittered over the causative effects of blight, carefully tiptoed around the political minefield of beach access and management issues, listened intently as economic development blowhards fogged the room with their noxious fumes, took public comment and then carefully considered options.
For a while, this remarkable group seemed like they were getting to the core of the problem(s) – our newspaper of record stimulated public awareness by publishing a grim inventory of abandoned and delipidated properties on A-1-A – and many long-suffering residents pinned our last/best hope on the BRC’s good work to rescue us from this tailspin.
Then, inexplicably, just as they reached the finish line, the committee allowed a mid-level county bureaucrat to cobble together a halfhearted report under their impressive names which said, well, nothing.
Essentially, the committee concluded that the City of Daytona Beach needs to get its act together and enforce its codes and ordinances.
Of course, the final list of “recommendations” had a lot more “governmentese,” sugary fluff to fill the voids and deflect any real accountability – little more than hot air, really.
When our cowardly elected officials on the Volusia County Council (you know, the ones who commissioned this think tank in the first place?) received the committee’s final report, they shuffled their feet nervously and essentially agreed to “support” the City of Daytona Beach – whenever it gets around to cleaning up its own steaming stoolstack. . .
So much for that whole “collective vision thing,” huh?
At the end of the day, we need to face the fact that government isn’t going to redevelop our beleaguered beachside.
That’s not the role of public agencies – or public funds.
But neither is hamstringing private revitalization efforts with a ‘make-work’ labyrinth of codes, rules and boards – roadblocks that can add months and thousands of dollars to a new business start or property renovation.
Rather than setting a unified vision and establishing a streamlined redevelopment process which strips onerous regulations and cuts red tape – then create a one-stop shop to assist entrepreneurs and developers in taking beachside projects and small business proposals from the planning stage through ribbon-cutting with the least number of bureaucratic barriers – our entrenched power structure ignores the obvious.
My fervent hope was that the redevelopment committee would recommend a multi-disciplinary Office of Beachside Redevelopment (for lack of a more creative title) which would construct a clearly delineated path to success for beachside improvements by creating an efficient, rationalized and simplified process that levels the playing field for everyone – not just the privileged few – and emphasizes the importance of entrepreneurial investment.
A process that doesn’t include the wholesale government giveaway of those public amenities and traditions that make the Daytona Beach Resort Area different from every other coastal destination in Florida.
Despite what we are being told, the revival of core areas of the beachside – and the planned overhaul of the East ISB gateway (which currently looks more like the gates of hell than the entrance to a vacation destination) is still many months, if not years, away as the inflexible administrative and funding process grinds slowly on.
While patience and preparation may be virtues – bureaucratic paralysis and overreach are not.
In my view, government can best spur beachside revitalization by simply creating a clean, safe and inviting environment – setting an aerodynamic approval process – then getting the hell out of the way and let the free market work as intended.