The latest casualty in the ongoing war between downtown and the suburbs appears to have come in the demise of the Northern Cincinnati Convention & Visitors Bureau (NCCVB).
The visitor’s bureau for the northern suburbs, formed seven years ago to stimulate tourism and fill hotel rooms in northern Hamilton County, will cease to exist on Oct. 31. That seems a shame — and worse yet, anunnecessary shame.
We were prompted to look into the NCCVB’s departure after receiving a number of calls from local politicians and business owners, all left shaking their heads over this latest blow to urban-suburban relations.
“Their (downtown’s) mission all along was to get rid of us,” claims a board member of the visitor’s bureau. “Everybody talks about regionalism. The next time somebody uses the word ‘regionalism,’ just say ‘NCCVB’ back to them.”
Certainly Mark Schutte, executive director of the NCCVB, entered this venture thinking it would be a win for both the city and suburbs. As a seasoned suburban hotel manager, he thought, given the resources and even limited political support, he could eventually improve a bad situation. “There has always been that lack of trust, that disconnect, between the suburbs and the city,” Schutte observes. “We voted to take on the third highest hotel tax in the country to benefit downtown and the Duke Convention Center expansion. We worked in good faith with them.”
A little backstory: The NCCVB was created in 2002 as the result of a compromise between suburban hotel owners, who felt ignored by the urban core, and the downtown politicians and tourism officials that were supposedly there to represent their best interests. The suburban players said the plan wasn’t working, and felt they were shoveling their bed-tax money downtown into a huge money pit.
Todd Portune and the Hamilton County Commission entered the picture, trying to hammer out a political compromise that would benefit all parties. The deal reached: Some of the suburban bed-tax would be returned to the suburbs in the form of the creation of the NCCVB, as well as benefiting the Sharonville Convention Center. In exchange, the rest of the suburban money would be funneled to downtown’s CVB and the Duke Energy Convention Center expansion.
The NCCVB mission and vision seemed clear enough: Lure meetings, conventions and both corporate and leisure travel hotel business to the northern suburbs.
By early this year, however, the mission was in question. Hamilton County commissioners and Cincinnati City Council voted to disband the northern agency. At issue was how the $3 million in excess revenue from the countywide tax on hotel rooms would actually be spread out in 2010. Everyone, from Schutte’s agency to the Duke Energy Center and the Sharonville Convention Center (planning an expansion), had their hands out for a slice of the pie.
Schutte is mystified at this latest turn of events: “2008 was our best year. Some people will say there’s not enough money (to fund all these various projects), but that’s simply not true.” He notes that his membership included 55 suburban hotels representing two-thirds of all available rooms in Hamilton County and half the bed-tax monies collected. “Nobody can say we didn’t perform.”
We are left wondering, then, when the doors close in a few months, who will actually be looking out for the interests of northern Cincinnati — attracting the tourists and out-of-state shoppers, helping land events at the Sharonville Convention Center and, of course, filling the many hotel rooms by booking major sporting events. The downtown interests closed the NCCVB without announcing a plan to fill the vacuum.
The Cincinnati USA Regional Tourism Network — a marketing partnership of the Cincinnati USA Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau — recently announced its plan to amplify its presence on the internet and collaborate with high-profile multicultural events this summer. But can it help fill the NCCVB’s shoes?
According to Schutte, his agency filled 56,000 empty hotel rooms in northern Hamilton County last year (a 54 percent increase over 2007). Will the downtown agency work as hard to fill those suburban hotels, even at the expense of downtown? This matters, because if the suburban hotels suffer even as they pay outrageous bed-taxes, you can imagine what happens next. The Red Roof Inns and Quality Inns of the world can move a few miles north into the next counties — away from what they perceive as an unfriendly and economically loaded environment.
We think this story is about more than mere economics and the cost of doing business. Life is never fair, but was this ungracious heave-ho of the hard-working staff at the NCCVB really necessary? Or was it about the city and county reneging on a tax deal they made with the suburbs seven years ago?
We’re sure that there is plenty of finger-pointing to go around on all sides. But if the perception truly exists in the suburbs, that the burbs really don’t matter to the downtown core, then this is a problem. If leaders in the northern suburbs truly believe that downtown’s interests can’t be trusted to fairly (much less honestly) cut any future political and tax deals, then the entire underpinning of “regionalism” collapses.
In this case, theperception of the truth on the part of the suburbs is just as important — and perhaps more so — than any actual truth.