Council OKs hike in lodging tax to build for tourism

Published on Thu, Oct 11, 2001 by Meg Olson

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Council OKs hike in lodging tax to build for tourism

By Meg Olson

“The events of history have kind of run us off the bridge but it’s important we bite the bullet and do it,” said city council member Ken Ely, promoting a one percent increase in the city’s lodging tax despite the economic strain of a tighter border. “This plan gets us where we want to go.”

City council followed Ely’s lead and voted unanimously for the increase at their October 8 meeting.

As council representative on the Blaine tourism advisory commission (BTAC), Ely helped develop the city’s new tourism plan, adopted by the council, which calls for the extra funds for capital projects to support tourism. ‘“It’s an excellent plan, a visionary plan but one filled with practical ideas,” said city manager Gary Tomsic. The plan calls for restrooms downtown, perhaps as part of a relocated visitor center, boardwalks on the water side of Peace Portal Drive and connecting the marine park with the pier, and welcome signs at the city’s gateways.

“BTAC is looking at this funding to support infrastructure development that’s badly needed to make Blaine a place to visit.” Tomsic said the increase could generate $30,000 a year, which Blaine could use as matching funds for grants or loans to fund construction.

Statewide, all hotels and motels collect a two-percent regular lodging tax that replaces two percent of state sales tax on hotel bills and goes directly to local coffers, city finance director Meredith Riley told council. Since 1997 the state allows cities and counties to also charge a special lodging tax, up to five percent, for communities to boost overnight stays. Blaine already has a one-percent special tax and the new increase raises that to two percent.

“For a small town we’re kind of in the middle of the range,” Riley said. Neither Ferndale, Lynden nor Sumas charge a special lodging tax, but Bellingham and La Conner levy two percent and Ocean Shores three percent.

The tourism plan had recommended the additional one percent tax be implemented last year, but BTAC opted to defer the increase because of concerns from Resort Semiahmoo, which generates over 90 percent of the lodging tax collected by the city. This year the resort withdrew its opposition to the increase. “We didn’t oppose it,” said Resort Semiahmoo general manager Sandy Heydt. “We knew it was coming. We don’t think it’ll have any negative impact on our customers but we’re going to watch it.” Heydt added she hoped improvements in Blaine would offer more for resort guests. “What’s good for Blaine is good for Resort Semiahmoo. We really support the improvements the committee is working on in the city.”

The only hotel owner who attended the public hearing on the increase was Art Lawrenson of Motel International. A previous member of BTAC, Lawrenson said he had supported the first one percent special tax but had mixed emotions on another increase. “I don’t know where all that money went,” he said. “I’m not saying it was well spent or poorly spent. All I do know is I haven’t seen a change. If I knew where the money was going and I would see some immediate results I’d be more inclined to support it.” Lawrenson also said he felt the city had better things to spend money on than the visitor information center, which takes up “a big chunk” of lodging tax revenues, according to Tomsic. “That money is down the drain,” Lawrenson said. “We’re sending them to Ferndale, Bellingham, at Blaine’s expense. It’s a luxury the city can’t afford.”

“Over the past two years we’ve tried to change how we do business so we will see results,” Ely replied “I’m not saying the way we’ve spent the money has been a bad job, but we can do better. Like you I want to see it happen tomorrow. I think we will see it in the next two years. The money will be spent differently and I think you’ll see a return on it.”
Council voted unanimously on the increase, which goes into effect January1, 2002
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