Project: St. Johns Cultural Council Wins Big in Advocacy Effort
Organization: St. Johns Cultural Council
Image of Historic Flager College in St. Augustine, FL
Image of Historic Flager College in St. Augustine, FL from 1902. Courtsey of image gallery.

St. Augustine in St. Johns County Florida is one of the oldest cities in the country and as such has a lot to offer in terms of cultural and historic attractions.  Like many other destination cities, St. Augustine has a hotel/motel bed tax that helps to support the local arts/cultural organizations and tourism. The three-cent tax was initiated when voted on by Florida citizens in the early 1980s. The tax was set up to distribute 40 percent of revenue collected to tourism marketing promotion, 30 percent to arts and cultural programming/organizations, and 30 percent for parks and recreation.

Bed taxes can be a great source of support for the arts and cultural institutions that often draw cultural tourists. However, in St. Johns County there were a few fundamental issues that were preventing the arts and cultural organizations from receiving its portion of tax proceeds. One issue was the loose definition of arts and culture within the law. This allowed arts funding to be diverted from arts organizations supporting the local economy to go to events like county fireworks displays. Secondly, the county lacked an agency to oversee the distribution of the tax dollars which resulted in the hotels having a tremendous amount of influence over how the allocated money was distributed.  Without a clear understanding of the economic impact the arts had on its community, the distribution was often skewed and lacked a collaborative cultural tourism message.

Philip McDaniel, president of St. Johns Cultural Council, recognized the potential for the county’s revenue to increase through a stronger reputation as a cultural tourism destination.  But for this to happen, the arts impact needed to be recognized.  McDaniel enlisted a network of advocates to relay the importance of the arts on tourism and its economic impact.  Among the advocates was Americans for the Arts Director of State and Local Government Affairs Jay Dick who helped illustrate to the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) at a hearing the impact that supporting the arts and cultural tourism can have in a prime historically relevant area. He highlighted a few key facts about cultural tourists compared with other tourists: 

  • Cultural tourists spend more than the average traveler, ($631 vs. $457);
  • are more likely to stay in a hotel (62 percent vs. 52 percent);
  • are more likely to spend over $1,000 (18 percent vs. 12 percent),
  • stay longer (5.2 nights vs. 4.1 nights),
  • and are more likely to get out and shop (44 percent vs. 33 percent).

This is a compelling argument for more than just the arts organizations in the area.  Cultural tourism can create a ripple of revenue that benefits the community, not to mention the 1,645 individuals that are employed by the 564 arts-related businesses in St. Johns County.

McDaniel and his colleagues’ advocacy efforts have paid off. In addition to Dick’s testimony the board heard from many arts advocates asking the BCC to recognize the importance of the arts on the economy and support it accordingly.  After several hours of public comment and discussion, the BCC decided to take the following steps:

  1. To redefine “Cultural Development.” A new definition that will use bed taxes to attract visitors, enhance the experience, and support our cultural producers.
  2. To more fairly redistribute the bed tax to allocate more funds to cultural programs and organizations.
  3. To establish a new “Culture Bureau” that will be staffed in order to provide more accountability for cultural funding and help nurture/support those investments.

McDaniel credits the tipping point for the decisions being the hundreds of people from all over the county who voiced their support via phone calls, letters, and by attending the board meeting.  

Organization Contact: Philip McDaniel