IT WAS SO much simpler, and cheaper, to promote Tucson 78 years ago. In the fall of 1922, local boosters formed the Sunshine Climate Club to encourage visitors, health seekers and potential residents to come and visit.
Two hundred charter club members chipped in $50,000 of their own money to buy advertising in magazines such as Life, National Geographic and The American Review of Tuberculosis. The main selling points for the community were climate, the scenery with its "weird, unusual forms of desert growth," and man-made attractions like San Xavier del Bac.
This year, the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau is spending almost $3.5 million to promote tourism in southern Arizona. But because that effort is dwarfed by bigger markets such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, local tourism officials are hoping to increase the amount by another $2 million. Proposition 400 on the November ballot would impose an additional 1 percent hotel tax, on top of the existing rate of 7.5 percent in Pima County and 9.5 percent inside the Tucson city limits, to promote Pima County tourism for the next 30 years.
Proposition 400 is "a great way to boost the economy of Tucson and Pima County," according to Jonathan Walker, head of the Visitors Bureau. He points to tourism as a clean industry that brings money into the local economy, where it is recycled several times over. Plus, Walker adds, the tax increase will be paid for by visitors staying in guest rooms, not by local residents.
To back passage of the proposition with a modest campaign of buttons, free billboards and possibly some radio spots, 31 businesses and individuals, including the Tucson Airport Authority, Park Place Mall, and the Southern Arizona Lodge and Resort Association, have joined together. Tom Tracy, chair of the group, believes approval of the proposition will have a gigantic benefit because "the tax money comes from outside the community, it will be spent to benefit the community, and it will be administered by groups that represent the community."
Tracy expects the additional money to be used primarily to promote southern Arizona in the nine months of the year when tourism facilities are underused. He also says that presently the local hospitality tax rate is competitive because it is in the lowest one-third in the nation; adoption of the proposition won't change that.
But Laurie Haskett, owner of the Congenial Quail Bed and Breakfast, isn't so sure she supports the proposal. She says she has mixed feelings about the proposition and wants to listen to all sides of the debate before deciding how to vote.
"I've been getting the message from tourism officials that I need to support the proposition," Haskett says, "and they are promoting it as a panacea and a one-time opportunity. But I'm concerned because my guests are paying almost 10 percent in tax now and that hikes their bill. People who stay in bed and breakfasts are looking for a more personal experience, and the tax is a goodly portion of their bill. My mind is still open about the proposition, and I want to talk to other small businesses that it will affect."
However she decides to vote on 400, Haskett believes "Tucson has to broaden its economic base. Tourism will come here if we have a more stable economy."
One of the arguments made against the proposition is that local promotional efforts help the major resorts and large hotels, but many mom-and-pop-run tourist accommodations see little or no benefit from them. Another complaint is that passage of the proposition will promote an industry that has a high percentage of low-paying jobs. While millions of tax dollars are spent to encourage tourism each year, critics contend, efforts to create high-paying jobs or train workers for better employment opportunities have to continually beg for public money.
Opponents also point to the fact that the tourism industry is a special case where many of the taxes generated by it automatically go back into promoting it. It wasn't always that way, but in 1990 tourism officials persuaded the Arizona State Legislature to pass a law requiring any new city tax on the hospitality industry to "be used exclusively by the city ... for the promotion of tourism." So new tourism tax dollars can't be used to hire more cops, install new parks or build sidewalks. After 1990, they had to be used solely to promote more tourism.
Unlike this year's proposal, the last tourism tax increase didn't require approval by the voters. To help pay for the ill-financed Tucson Electric Park baseball stadium, a few years ago the state legislature imposed a 2 percent tax on all lodging rooms in Pima County, even in distant Ajo. One-half of those funds go annually toward the debt service on the stadium, the other to promote local tourism.
The process needed to pass this year's proposed tax increase is different. It requires voter approval, and if voters smile upon Prop 400 the extra money would supplement the present efforts of the local Visitors Bureau plus the $7 million the Arizona Department of Tourism annually spends on promoting travel to the state.
Walker of the Visitors Bureau believes the new funds will be used to enhance current efforts to promote Tucson and southern Arizona as a destination for leisure and cultural trips. More emphasis on Internet promotional activities may be possible, too.
On November 7, after wading thorough a long list of contentious initiatives dealing with growth management and cemetery taxes, bilingual education and health care, Pima County voters will come upon Prop 400. What they decide will determine just how many millions of tax dollars local tourism officials will have to promote their own industry.