The push for a new professional soccer stadium in downtown Orlando could pit the region’s powerful tourism industry against boosters of the world’s most popular sport.

The stadium proposal depends on public funds covering more than two-thirds of the price tag. And a portion of that money could be tourist taxes already earmarked for Visit Orlando, the group of hoteliers and others in the tourism industry who jealously guard their funding.

“I do not think the tourist development tax is an appropriate funding source for the [soccer] stadium, at this point,” said Allan Villaverde, president of The Peabody Orlando hotel. “I would be 100 percent opposed to the tourist tax being used for this.”

The chairman of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, who is still looking for the money to finish construction, isn’t fond of the idea, either. That money could be used to complete the arts center more quickly, Jim Pugh said.

“I don’t have anything against soccer stadiums, but I think we ought to prioritize and finish what we’ve started,” he said.

The conflicting interests – soccer, tourism and the arts – demonstrate the challenges Orlando City Soccer Club faces as it tries to cobble together support for what would be the only Major League Soccer franchise in the Southeast.

The minor-league team currently plays in the Citrus Bowl stadium, which is about to undergo a $175 million renovation. But the Orlando City Lions are vying to be one of two new Major League Soccer expansion franchises, and MLS officials have ruled out playing in the 70,000-seat Citrus Bowl long term.

MLS instead wants a cozier 18,800-seat soccer stadium that would cost about $110 million. The team has pledged $30 million, and the rest would be a mix of state sales tax, cash and land from Orlando, and tourist taxes controlled by Orange County.

Tourist taxes wouldn’t have to be increased. Rather, the money in question is already being collected; the soccer club hopes $2.8 million a year will be diverted to fund the stadium construction.

“It’s money that’s already in the system,” Orlando City Soccer Club president Phil Rawlins said. “It’s a redirection of existing dollars.”

But those dollars are already pledged to Visit Orlando. The agency projects it will receive about $36.3 million in tourist taxes this year, but is expecting a $2.8 million bump in funding in 2018. That’s the money that Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Rawlins have asked county officials to steer toward the stadium.

Visit Orlando spends the tourist tax to market the area as a convention site, and promote Central Florida to domestic and international travelers.

Hoteliers have a history of fending off other proposed uses for the tax on hotel rooms.

Dyer and Rawlins have opted for a more diplomatic approach in recent weeks, meeting with leaders from Visit Orlando and the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association to win support.

Their pitch: Major League Soccer would be broadcast around the world, bringing wide exposure to Orlando as a travel destination.

Orlando City Soccer Club announced last week that a wealthy Brazilian has become a major investor in the team, and there are plans to bring a “David Beckham-quality” Brazilian star player to Orlando. That would increase Orlando’s already large number of visitors from Brazil, Rawlins said.

“We can gain international coverage for them in a way that no other sport could,” Rawlins said.

Visit Orlando hasn’t taken a position on the funding proposal yet, but Dyer and Rawlins called early discussions “positive.”

Influential hotelier Harris Rosen, an outspoken opponent of spending tourist taxes on projects that don’t promote tourism, so far is neutral. Lobbyist Angel de la Portilla represents Rosen on an Orlando City MLS advisory board that has been meeting behind the scenes since August.

De la Portilla said the group includes several prominent development and hotel leaders, including Rasesh Thakkar of the Tavistock Group, the company that is developing Lake Nona and is an investor in Tottenham Hotspur, one of the oldest soccer teams in the English Premier League. Mike Millay, a Disney sports executive, also sits on the panel, he said.

“What this all boils down to is what the return on that investment will be, and how many hotel-room nights would result,” de la Portilla said.

Strategically, winning over hoteliers will be key for the soccer team, because tourist taxes are controlled by the county, and County Mayor Teresa Jacobs is not inclined to move quickly.

Jacobs said she supports bringing an MLS franchise here but is not comfortable with the sudden urgency. She said earlier discussions anticipated that the soccer team would play in the Citrus Bowl another seven to eight years.

“I don’t accept that it’s an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it moment,” Jacobs said. “The sky is not falling.”

Source: Orlando Sentinel

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