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Mediation next step between battling Auditorium Board and Visitors Bureau

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Next time you rent a hotel room in Boise, check out the small print at the bottom of the bill. In addition to room rates, every customer is assessed a 5 percent tax that funds the Greater Boise Auditorium District.

GBAD is responsible for building and maintaining the Boise Centre, completed in 1990, and for decades, it has also funded the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau. Before July 22, few outside of the hospitality industry could have told you what the publicly elected GBAD board does. But after a heated meeting, when the board voted 3-2 to stop funding the BCVB, folks started paying attention.

The Visitors Bureau is responsible for bringing more than $30 million to the Boise area through conventions and events like the Special Olympics and the Ironman Triathlon. But come Wednesday, Sept. 1, the bureau will lose $1.3 million in funding from GBAD, approximately 65 percent of its budget. With so much on the line, Mayor Dave Bieter stepped in and offered to pay for mediation.

"There are three people on the board who want to take all of the marketing in house, and there are two of us who want to work with BCVB," said GBAD member Mike Fitzgerald. "It took an intervention by the mayor to get the group ... to come together and try to hammer out some kind of agreement."

Arguments against funding BCVB have taken various forms. First, board members cited the bureau's recent questionable audit report. Then, they referenced a 2008 Idaho Supreme Court ruling in Pocatello that said auditorium districts can only use hotel taxes to market their own facilities, not the city as a whole. GBAD Board Chairman Mike Wilson acknowledged that the bureau is valuable to Boise but argued that the board can't continue to fund the bureau as it has in the past.

"We can't pay them 100 percent of what they do," said Wilson, "because 100 percent of what they do does not affect us in the least ... The Supreme Court case says that I can't spend money that isn't marketing my building. The Visitors Bureau markets a lot of things other than our building, but yet we're paying for it. That's the issue, that's how simple it is."

But the issue got considerably more complicated when BCVB received a $328,000 grant in early August from the Idaho Travel Council that can be spent on marketing the city but not on bureau salaries. As of now, that means the bureau's 15 employees will have to work pro-bono to utilize the grant money.

"It would be great for us if the district would decide to at least fund us at a level adequate to allow us to do our grant program," said Bobbie Patterson, executive director of BCVB. "That really probably means some reasonable allocation ... Our job is going to be ongoing to sell the city, their job apparently is going to be to sell the [Boise Centre] primarily, which is a whole different challenge."

Before the GBAD board's vote not to fund the Visitors Bureau, the Boise Centre recruited three BCVB employees to work in house doing marketing for the Boise Centre. But the notion that the 5 percent room tax will now only fund the marketing of the Boise Centre--and not the city's many other meeting and conference facilities--has many hoteliers in a panic.

"I think that decision is pretty devastating for not only the hotel community but certainly our city as a whole," said John May, general manager and part-owner of the Owyhee Plaza Hotel. "Obviously, what the Convention Bureau brings to town goes far wider than just the hotel rooms. It's a trickle-down effect."

David Hale, owner of the Modern Hotel, also disagrees with the board's decision.

"Our customers, our guests, are having to pay a percentage of tax that's ultimately going to another entity [the Boise Centre] to help support their business," said Hale. "It isn't possibly helping support the rest of downtown and the rest of Boise like the Convention and Visitors Bureau did. That doesn't seem right. It seems like they should reduce that tax then."

So what will happen to that $1.3 million if BCVB not longer gets it? Part of it will go toward funding the Boise Centre's in-house marketing and the rest will go into GBAD coffers for the potential construction of another Boise Centre-like facility.

"If we're unable to expand or build a new building in a reasonable period of time, then, yes, I would advocate reducing [the tax]," said Wilson.

Wilson offered a number of suggestions for funding the Visitors Bureau--the City of Boise could spend its money or local hoteliers could pay a fee--but regardless, if mediation fails, BCVB won't be able to support its staff come Sept. 1. In Fitzgerald's eyes, this is a giant step backward for Boise, one that could potentially affect the city's growth for years to come.

"This puts the sales and marketing of Boise and our competition for conventions behind years," said Fitzgerald. "It's going to affect tourism and convention and meeting business in this valley very, very hard."

But according to Patterson, the bureau remains hopeful that through mediation, which should take place in the coming days or weeks, the GBAD board--and the community at large--will realize the value in what they do.

"We're all prepared to go on unemployment, we're moving our offices ... We're going to try to find some way to stay in place until there's some resolution to the issue," said Patterson.

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