“There is a vast perception across Fort Myers Beach that it pays the largest share of the Lee County Bed Tax for the Tourist Development Council (TDC) and doesn’t receive back its fair share,” said Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau (VCB) to roughly 25 people at the Estero Island Taxpayers Association (EITA) Tuesday evening, April 11. “I hope to prove nothing is further from the truth!” Town Council member and TDC member Anita Cereceda joined her in the presentation, with District 3 County Commissioner Larry Kiker a last-minute cancellation.
Tamara provided a VCB overview, based on 2016 statistics, saying that “Lee County had 4.8 million visitors, with about 3 million in paid accommodations, and the rest on your couch or in your guest room, but they still go to restaurants and attractions. All total, they contribute about $3 billion to our economy, and that does not count secondary monies such as the 57,723 people who work in tourism who receive paychecks, pay rent, buys groceries and go out themselves. That adds up to far more than just $3 billion.”
She explains the Bed Tax is 5% in addition to the 6% sales tax. “Fort Myers Beach last year paid $5.9 million of Lee County’s total of $39.7 million, or about 15%. Between beach maintenance and renourishment, and smaller projects like the Newton Park shade structure, as well as benefits to adjacent sites such as Lovers Key State Park and boardwalk repairs, Lee County and the TDC allocated 16% back to Fort Myers Beach, so it looks like you really do receive your share. We don’t just take that money and never think about Fort Myers Beach again, as everyone knows that this is Lee County’s playground, not just in-season but year-round.”
Heads-in-Beds & Mom & Pop
Tamara calls the VCB mission “to put heads in beds; to bring people here to spend their money over all the other sun-and-fun destinations around the world, as 85% of our visitors come to vacation rather than for things like conventions. We provide resources as well to the Mom & Pop businesses that dominate our region, so they can do their best in today’s economy.”
The TDC is a nine-person advisory board appointed by the Lee County Board of Commissioners, with Fort Myers Beach currently having three members in Cereceda, Fran Myers from the Red Coconut RV Park who has been on the TDC since 1985 and a representative from the Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina. They make their funding recommendations to the county commissioners who have the final decision.
“There is a short list of very specific things that you can use TDC dollars for,” said Tamara, “such as beach facilities and improvements; erosion control, and shoreline protection, and municipalities and non-profits are the only ones that can make these requests.” Applications are due each February, with the funds allocated in May. An audience member asked if beach restrooms are eligible, and she said “they are, but only if your municipality requests them; in 2017, the Town asked for $995,400 for beach maintenance and $15,000 for interpretive signage.”
We Need a Plan
“We need a plan for improvements and not just do this piecemeal, so we make strong applications to get funding to actualize the blueprint,” stressed Anita. “I understand beach accesses are in someone’s neighborhood, so any suggestion will be unpopular to some, because it will always be in someone’s backyard, and that is why we need a comprehensive plan. We as a community sometimes feel visitors are a burden, but we also benefit from them for our small businesses and hoteliers, so tourists are crucial to our Town. We need to discuss how the TDC works, and how it can better work for us. Without a plan, it is just not right to say we don’t get out fair share.” Tamara then added, “The best-written ones always get funded.”
Tamara and Anita got into a friendly debate as to whether Times Square should qualify as a beach access for TDC funding. “Is it a beach?” asked Tamara. “It is on Fort Myers Beach, yes, but is it the beach? I don’t think so.” Anita responded, “I have an idea that it is! Times Square is actually the biggest, most highly-used beach access on Fort Myers Beach, as there is one premium space on Fort Myers Beach where everyone who comes here goes, and that is the pier and Times Square.” “I think that is a stretch,” said Tamara, with Anita countering, “So, at one time, were baseball stadiums!”
The next EITA meeting is Tuesday, May 9, with Fort Myers Beach Mayor Dennis Boback scheduled to be the guest speaker at 6:30 p.m.