Photo from Austin Convention Center’s Facebook.

The Austin Convention Center’s approved expansion is once again a hot topic of debate. Even though the expansion received unanimous City Council approval on May 23 after being an ongoing topic for several years and up for vote multiple times, its future is now in jeopardy. A new group calling itself Unconventional Austin aims to stop the expansion before it starts. After receiving 30,000 signatures, they are currently filing the petition to start the process over with a public vote on the expansion.

As a small business owner and long-time Austinite, I want what’s best for my city and the other small businesses in it. That’s why I strongly support the Austin Convention Center expansion – and you should, too!

So what misinformation is going around about the expansion, and why is the expansion ultimately a smart move for all of us?

1) Who’s Paying for the Expansion. Some people are wrongly claiming that Austin residents’ taxes will pay for the convention center expansion. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Hotel and Occupancy Taxes, or HOT taxes, are being tapped to fund this project. If you own a home in Austin, you won’t pay a cent of your private taxes toward this project. If you stay in an Austin hotel for a night, however, you will help pay for the expansion! Read on to learn why.

2) How HOT Taxes Can Be Spent. One argument against the convention center expansion is that the HOT tax money could be spent on something else, like arts or historical restoration. But that’s just not legally possible. There are caps to how much a city can spend on art and historic preservation funding from HOT taxes, and Austin is already spending the maximum legal amount which is 15%. Austin could increase its local hotel tax rate from 7% to a proposed 9%, which would increase the amount of money available to cultural arts and heritage; but the 15% rule still applies. Any group claiming otherwise is misinformed. (A recent KXAN article has a good synopsis of these allocation amounts.)

3) Who Knew About the Expansion. While those of us in the hospitality industry have been paying close attention to the proposed expansion for years, it definitely hasn’t been a secret. The media has covered the issue for years. In addition, a task force comprised of volunteers formed to tackle this issue in 2017, and they determined it was in Austin’s best interest to move forward with the expansion. Starting over from scratch with a public vote doesn’t just waste government employees’ time and taxpayer money – it also ignores all the time that task force volunteers spent researching and working on this issue.

4) Who Really Benefits From the Expansion. Hospitality is the third largest business and employment sector in Austin, offering over 129,000 jobs to Austinites. That includes employees at hotels, restaurants, small businesses (like mine), A/V rigging and lighting services and more.

Think about how often you eat out, if it were not for these visitors, all the restaurants we have gained over the last decade would not survive. We need outside spend to help our local restaurants thrive!

One of my industry friends who works in A/V staffing confided in me that she worries whenever the convention center is dark. “That means we don’t have the work here in our own home town and that’s our livelihood,” she told me. The Austin Convention Center provides her and her family with secure work – or it did until it became too small for larger conventions or even having more than one large convention at a time.

According to a UT-Austin study, the hospitality and leisure industries make up about 15% of Austin’s economy. That’s more than the state of Texas’ average of 13%, and way more than the 2000 Austin average of 11%. Tourism – especially large conventions – keep Austin running, plain and simple. If we choose not to expand the Austin Conference Center, we stand to lose a lot: $1.3 billion, to be exact.

Small businesses wouldn’t be pushed out by the expansion – we’re suffering because we need the expansion.

There’s more misinformation out there about the Austin Convention Center expansion. City Council member Jimmy Flannigan recently wrote a blog post that debunks many of the myths.

The truth is, even if we do move forward with the expansion, it won’t happen overnight, and it will be challenging in the meantime. Construction can be a lengthy process. But if we want to keep Austin’s small businesses thriving, if we want to keep our economy strong through the proven success of tourism revenue, and if we want to invest in a city-improving project that doesn’t touch public tax dollars, we need to move forward with the Austin Convention Center expansion. This is private dollars funding a public space that we all benefit from.

I try to go to as many of the City of Austin meetings to voice my concern. If this affects you, please do discuss the matter with your City Council member. We all need to be heard.