by Bruce Lidl
According to the organizers themselves, the key factor in Comic Con’s 2010 decision to spurn suitors from Anaheim and Los Angeles, and to stay in San Diego (at least through 2015) was the stated commitment of local hotels to not gouge future visiting Con-goers with jacked up rates during the Con. It was, however, the promise by local politicians and hoteliers to pursue an ambitious expansion of the San Diego convention center (already bursting at the seams from the 125,000 capacity of the Con) that was expected to lock down Comic Con in San Diego long term.
A crucial portion of the expansion plan has been the creative way it is to be funded. No one believed the plan could garner a two-thirds majority in a local election, as California law requires. Instead, the plan’s supporters came up with the idea of a specially worded property tax just on hotels, to be put into action as a form of occupancy tax, adding a 3% charge for hotels closest to the convention center, 2% a little farther out (Mission Valley for example) and 1% for the rest of San Diego county. Over thirty years the new tax would be expected to raise on average $36 million per year, and would cover the bulk of the convention center expansion plan’s projected cost of $520 million. Instead of San Diego voters having a direct say on the matter, San Diego hoteliers themselves will vote on April 23rd, with a two-thirds super-majority required in that vote as well.
Almost from the moment the plan was announced it ran into criticism, and as we reported previously, other groups looking for construction money, like the San Diego Chargers, have openly tried to scheme their way into some of the revenue. More difficult however, may be the rumblings, some which comes from local organized labor, that the ingenuity necessary to evade a public vote on increasing city revenue may be simply too creative, and would be vulnerable to legal challenge. To underscore just how vulnerable the plan may be, San Diego’s city attorney, Jan Goldsmith recently admitted that the financing scheme faces “constitutional questions” and that he cannot vouch for its ultimate legality.
While the ultimate fates of the tax and the convention center expansion itself remain very much up in the air, the upcoming Wonder Con, to be held in March 16-18 in Anaheim instead of its usual San Francisco location, will offer an interesting vision of what might have been. Organized by the San Diego Comic Con staff, the 2012 Wonder Con in Anaheim might also demonstrate a viable option for the big daddy Comic Con itself should the local expansion plans fall through. It will be quite telling to see how successful the show is this year, not just to see how many previous Wonder Con goers make the trek down south, but also how useful Anaheim could be for the future.
Of course if San Diego’s plan does get put into effect, how will travelers respond to a “Comic Con tax” on their hotel bills? The current San Diego occupancy tax is 10.5%, so they may not notice, especially if they stay outside of downtown. And for comparison sake, New York City’s equivalent tax is 14.75%, plus $3.50 per night. But is taxing tourists for local infrastructure fair in general? A kind of taxation without representation? A does government spending on convention centers even make sense any more from an economic standpoint? Would a new tax end up doing exactly what the Con organizers fought against in the first place, that is, gouge visitors unfairly?