Saturday, January 22, 2000

N.Ky. tax to aid Cincy a tough sell

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT MITCHELL — When a big firefighters' convention decided not to return to Cincinnati because the city's convention center was too small, the Drawbridge Inn here also lost business.

        While most of the 11,000-member group stayed at hotels close to the Albert B. Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center, a smaller sister group held its convention in Northern Kentucky at the Drawbridge.

        “They bought 400 rooms for five nights,” said Drawbridge Vice President Jim Willman. “It meant about $250,000 to us.”

        When the firefighting group left Cincinnati, its companion convention fled Fort Mitchell.

        Mr. Willman uses that example to enlist support for what could prove to be one of the toughest decisions for local lawmakers in this year's session of the Kentucky General Assembly.

        Legislators are being asked to approve a 1-cent increase in the Northern Kentucky hotel tax to raise $10 million for a proposed $400 million expansion of Cincinnati's convention center.

        Proponents of the increase, such as Mr. Willman, say that investing the money in Cincinnati's convention center will mean spinoff business for Northern Kentucky hotels, restaurants, bars and attractions.

        “Something like this is not only good for the community and for the economy in Northern Kentucky,” Mr. Willman said Friday. “But it's a great step toward regionalism between the two communities.”

        Raising taxes to benefit a Cincinnati project is proving to be a tough sell in Frankfort.

        Some lawmakers from Northern Kentucky said the taxpayers they represent aren't warming up to the idea of sending money across the river. The majority of local lawmakers have also pledged to not raise any taxes while in office.

        “There's not much constituent support for this,” said Senate President Pro Tem Dick Roeding, R-Lakeside Park. “I'm keeping my ear to the ground and trying to figure out what is the right thing to do on this issue.”

        Mr. Roeding and other law makers, including Sen. Jack Westwood, R-Erlanger, question if passing a tax increase and sending the money to another state is allowed under Kentucky's constitution.

        “We're waiting to find out if something like this is even legal,” Mr. Westwood said Friday. “But I really haven't heard all the pros and cons. I will say that generally speak ing, my people in my district don't want me voting for new taxes.”

        Mr. Willman said the local business community, including the hospitality industry, is gearing up for a lobbying campaign. On Wednesday, the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors will vote on whether to endorse the increase.

        The proposed 1 percent increase would increase Northern Kentucky's hotel tax to 5 percent. Lexington is already at 5 percent; Louisville's is 6 percent.

        State law dictates that any increase in the tax, while levied by the three counties, must be approved by the legislature.

        Mr. Willman said he understands that lawmakers are concerned about raising taxes, but he said at least this tax will be paid by transients who only stay a few nights in the region and who don't live here year-round.

        As far as sending Kentucky tax dollars across the river, Mr. Willman said that is already done.

        The Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau, which receives most of its funding from the hotel tax, pays for joint marketing campaigns with its companion group in Cincinnati.

        “We're already partners in a lot of endeavors,” Mr. Willman said.

        While Northern Kentucky has its own convention center in Covington, it is not as large as the Cincinnati convention center, Mr. Willman said.

        Cincinnati City Council has agreed to pay $50 million for the expansion and increase the city's hotel tax from 10.5 to 12 percent as long as $20 million in private funds is raised by the project's backers.

        House Majority Caucus Chairman Jim Callahan, D-Wilder, said the Kentucky General Assembly “won't even look at a hotel tax increase” unless Northern Kentucky lawmakers are solidly behind the proposal.


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