According to NASA, “a black hole is a place in space where gravity pulls so much that even light cannot get out.” If gravity was limited to pulling in money and light, then the Austin Convention Center is the biggest black hole in Travis County.

The downtown black hole is pulling in so much money, barely a spark of light can emerge on the true fate of $75 million in City funds sucked into the Convention Center hole this year alone.

If you ask the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau (ACVB) or the Austin Convention Center Department (both funded by the City of Austin’s hotel occupancy tax, or “HOT” tax) they will tell you the Convention Center is a roaring success, and we need to expand it with another $400 to $600 million expansion in order to keep visitors coming to Austin. If you ask them to show their success and where all the money is going, they hide the ball, change the subject, or claim the information is “private.”

Thankfully, KXAN TV’s investigative news team began to shed light on the Convention Center black hole with an in-depth report that aired last Friday evening.

So what does this have to do with saving Barton Springs and keeping our home waters clean and flowing?  By state law, the HOT tax must be used to support and promote tourism. This includes supporting the arts, historic and cultural preservation, tourism promotion, transportation that primarily serves visitors, and, yes, convention centers.  But fewer than 2% of Austin visitors come for conventions at the convention center, yet the convention center collects over 70% of the HOT tax. That’s over 70% investment for less than 2% of the return. The people and places that attract tourists to Austin—the arts, musicians and music venues, iconic local businesses, cultural festivals and events, historic preservation, parks—get about 15% of the money--for all of those areas combined.  Barton Springs is reported to be the number 2 tourist attraction next to the State Capitol. Barton Springs preservation gets zero ($0) from Austin HOT tax revenues.

Austin’s music, film, and other festivals, its parks and water playgrounds, UT sporting events, and other activities are bringing visitors to Austin in droves. New hotels continue to be built. As a result, the City’s HOT tax collections have skyrocketed up from $36 million to over $90 million per year over the last decade. That number is likely to keep climbing.

This booming success in tourism and hotel tax collections contrasts sharply with the failing record of the Convention Center and the ACVB. The Austin Convention Center suffered a net operating loss of $24.3 million last year. The Center took in over $70 million of our hotel occupancy tax dollars, but attracted less than 2% of our visitors. The purported $400 to $600 million ACVB and ACCD want to expand the convention center somehow ignores the estimated $150 million needed to buy prime downtown land for the expansion; ignores the lost revenues from removing that land from the tax rolls; and ignores the increased year-after-year O&M losses that would likely flow from a larger facility.

But there’s something even worse. It’s the incalculable cost of losing those people, places, and activities that make Austin special and exciting to visitors and which should be receiving the lion’s share of the HOT tax funds.

You know, all those things we claim we care about and which make Austin something other than generic city USA. They are being driven or starved out, paved over or polluted, victims of Austin’s growth boom, of Austin’s affordability crisis, of the lip service paid to live music, cultural diversity, and green living.
That’s what happens when black holes open up and swallow so much of our money it makes sure no light can escape.

It doesn’t have to be this way. By digging up the information that ACVB, city staff, and their downtown hotel allies hope to keep secret, we can expose the truth and direct our tourism dollars to those people, places, and activities that make Austin a place worth living in and worth visiting.

Please take a moment to tell the City Council to stop pouring our tourism dollars into the Convention Center black hole and start funding those people, places, and activities that make Austin special and which are being lost-- our music, our water, our parks, our arts and our history.
Go here to send one message to the entire council