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OCTOBER 30, 2019

Planning in Shrinking Cities

By Dr. Mark Hafen, Master Instructor & Program Director, Urban & Regional Planning
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Vacant: A house in Youngstown, OH sits vacant, overlooking industrial facilities (AP Photo/Mark Stahl).

Those of us here in the booming Sun Belt are familiar with the problems of rapidly growing cities: sprawl, mobility, affordable housing, economic development, etc. But, like many Floridians, I came from "up North" – Pittsburgh, originally – and I was part of an out-migration that took place during the 1980's and 1990's as the industrial base of the Northeast and Upper Midwest collapsed.

Even if I had wanted to stay in Pittsburgh when I graduated from college in 1980, there were no jobs to be had. And so I bounced around between St. Louis, MO and Columbus, OH for six years, working for Anheuser-Busch (beer sales are high during economic downturns!). I landed in the Tampa Bay area in 1986, working for a company, Anchor Glass Container, which had relocated its entire corporate headquarters from Lancaster, OH to Tampa. That job only lasted three years, and the rest is a story for another time, but it is an example of how both people and entire businesses can be part of these out-migrations, taking everything with them: jobs, incomes, tax revenues, and general socioeconomic stability.

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Old infrastructure: Detroit's downtown people mover (author’s photo, 2018).

Most of my family still lives in the Pittsburgh area, and I have friends in St. Louis and other cities in the Northeast and Midwest that are still seeing their populations decline. Detroit, of course, is the primary example of a hollowed-out city trying to rebuild itself from what is left of its original structure. But there are plenty of others in the same situation, as discussed in this article from Next City which reviewed the book Shrinking Cities: Understanding Urban Decline in the United States (Weaver et al., 2016).

Planning for decline is a very different process than planning for growth: land and buildings must be re-used and repurposed, economic foundations changed, revenue sources modified, and budgets and infrastructure "rightsized" (in the 1980's, that was code for "massive layoffs").

Knowing and applying such techniques is absolutely necessary. Cities have to respond or risk descending into anarchy. Some cities have accepted that they are going to be smaller in population and have a completely different type of economy—Cleveland and Buffalo come to mind—and are working to restructure themselves accordingly. Others have not yet given up, hoping to attract new residents and businesses by revitalizing their traditional economic foundations.

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Repurposed: The formerly abandoned South Hills High School in Pittsburgh was converted to an independent living facility for seniors (author’s photo, 2014).

Pittsburgh has greatly changed its economy over the last several decades, from one based on manufacturing to "eds and meds" – tech jobs, the educational sector, and health care. UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Centers) is now one of the largest employers in the region. Yet, according to the above article, Pittsburgh is still projected to lose 25% of its population over the period 2000-2040 (much of which, I assume, has already happened). When I visit Pittsburgh these days, I see clear evidence that some parts of the region have been left out of this transformation, especially the smaller steel towns downriver from the main city, which had absolutely no economic diversity from which to rebuild. Poverty and blight abound.

Planning professionals – and planning students – who may find themselves working in declining city regions are going to have to acquire some unique skills to address these problems. In some ways, it is a "blank slate," a chance to try something new and innovative. In other cases, it is a matter of damage control, trying to keep your city up and running while revenues that paid for even the most basic services dwindle. Either way, it presents a challenge for urban planners.

And this, in turn, presents a challenge for urban planning educators, particularly those of us here at USF. The majority of our students come from Florida, and their experience and focus is on planning for growth. Our program touts its location in Tampa Bay as a "living laboratory" for planning, but really only in planning for population increase and economic development, neither of which is projected to cease anytime soon.

Can we "reverse engineer" basic planning principles based on growth to work for declining cities? Well, comprehensive planning for shrinking populations and economic decline still requires the basics: analysis of existing conditions, projections and scenario planning, and establishing goals, objectives, and policies that plan the future. So I have confidence the planners we are preparing will know how to be effective in any city, growing or declining.


OCTOBER 21, 2019

Heads in Beds: The Politics of Hotel Taxes

By Dr. Elizabeth Strom, Associate Professor, Urban & Regional Planning

You get a print out of your bill as you check out of your hotel and you do a double take. You had carefully researched the room charges, but this bill is higher than expected. Maybe 5% higher, maybe even 10%, maybe more.

That extra bit added on? States and cities often add a hotel tax (otherwise known as a transient tax, occupancy tax, bed tax, or room tax) to the cost of your stay. In some states, like Florida, your hotel tax comes on top of other state and local sales taxes. In other states, like Nevada, sales taxes are not levied on hotel stays, but hotel taxes in those states tend to be higher. For example, the highest hotel tax rate in Florida, which is charged in our largest counties, is 6%. In Las Vegas, the highest hotel levies are over 13%.

For the most part, hotel taxes are among the least contested local taxes. After all, they are paid by the people—visitors—who are least likely to have much political clout in your city or county. But there are nonetheless some points of tension regarding these taxes. For hospitality industry interests, this is a revenue stream, that, although collected by local government, should be used to promote the industry that generated it. To others, most notably local officials and in some cases other community stakeholders, these bed taxes are just like any consumption tax, and the proceeds should be available to support municipal services.

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Florida’s "Tourist Development Tax"
Florida created a local option hotel tax called the Tourist Development Tax (TDT) in 1977, and over the years the state has raised the highest possible levy to 6%. It’s actually a series of 1-2% taxes that counties are allowed to adopt, with pieces of that levy tied to convention center and professional sports facility development, among other things.

Initially adopted to build convention centers and support local tourism marketing efforts, the TDT’s uses have been expanded, although tourism promotion and management remains its focus. Maintaining and improving beaches and waterways is now a permitted and popular use. Smaller counties can use funds to support aquariums and nature centers. While counties have some discretion over spending, they must stick to the limitations imposed by the legislature.

There are occasional efforts to allow funds to be used for more common public services, with local interests arguing either that these services also benefit tourists, or that tourism makes these services necessary. For example, Monroe County, home of the Florida Keys, has hoped to use tourism taxes to address the chronic affordable housing shortage that makes it difficult for businesses to recruit service industry workers. Some beach communities, especially those popular among a rowdy spring break crowd, want to use TDT to augment public safety efforts.

Tourism industry lobbying groups such as the statewide Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association and other regional groups, use their influence with state legislators (as well as their seats on the county Tourist Development Councils, which set spending priorities) to push back against what they see as encroachments on funds that, to them, should be earmarked for clear tourism promotion purposes. In recent years we’ve seen legislative compromises that allow hospitality industry representatives to maintain a hold on these dedicated tourist dollars while permitting exceptions important to local legislators. A 2016 bill, for example, allows three Florida Panhandle counties to use TDT funds for public safety, something not approved for any other county. In 2018, the TDT legislation was amended to permit its use for lagoon clean up (the condition of the Indian River Lagoon was a special concern of Representative Randy Fine of Brevard County) and certain tourism related infrastructure (of interest to Senator Jeff Brandes, whose Pinellas beach communities needed sewer upgrades).

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Hotel Taxes in the Tampa Bay Area
In our region, a large percentage of the revenue funds go to destination marketing organizations such as Visit St. Pete-Clearwater or Visit Tampa Bay. In counties with convention centers, their debt service is a key budget item as well. The legislation has also permitted the use of TDT’s for professional sports facilities, so Amalie Arena, Legends Field (Hillsborough), and Tropicana Field, as well as minor league/spring training parks in Dunedin and Clearwater (Pinellas), have all received TDT grants for construction and/or renovation. This is not always popular with hotel interests, who note that regular season baseball or hockey games are not really tourist draws.

Counties also have grant programs to support organizations and events likely to draw tourists. The Outback Bowl, for example, gets promotion grants from Hillsborough County (where the annual football game takes place) and Pinellas County (because the week leading up to the bowl game includes a beach event). Cultural institutions like the Dali Museum and events like the Clearwater Jazz Holiday can apply for grants as well. In many cases grants go to organizations that are enjoyed by residents as well as tourists, but applicants are judged mostly on their ability to draw out of town guests—they must show that funded activities will generat "room nights"—that is, an estimate of how many hotel or vacation rental rooms will be rented by those in town for this event. TDT grant money is generated by hotel guests and is supposed to be used in ways to create ever greater demand for those hotels.

TDT spending decisions in most Florida communities have been relatively low profile, but this could be changing. County governments find themselves in an ongoing fiscal squeeze, struggling to pay for services while state transfers decrease, mandates and property tax limits increase, and voters continue to have little appetite for higher taxes. They may start looking more eagerly at those TDT coffers as a potential funding source. Orange County, by far the state’s largest tourist magnet, took in $277 million in tourist tax revenue in the last fiscal year. Tampa Bay area counties don’t come close to Orange County but they are still lucrative tourist magnets. Last year, Hillsborough County collected about $33 million; Sarasota County over $22 million; and Pinellas County just over $60 million, almost double what it brought in as recently as 2014. That sort of revenue stream can be very tempting.

As Jason Garcia notes, when the TDT was passed over 40 years ago, it was anticipated to bring in about $30 million statewide. In the current fiscal year, that total will likely be close to $1 billion. While tourism industry leaders warn about "killing the goose that lays the golden egg" (an expression used often in this context) by failing to reinvest that money into industry promotion, it’s fair to ask whether at some point ever greater marketing efforts may bring diminishing returns. Ultimately nice places to visit need to be nice places to live as well, and hotel tax dollars could help improve local quality of life in ways that benefit tourists and residents alike.


OCTOBER 1, 2019

USF MURP Students Take Part in FAPA Annual Conference

By Dr. Evangeline Linkous, Associate Professor, Urban & Regional Planning
In Collaboration with Sam Becker, Amanda Harig, and Andrew Harris, MURP Students

Each year, the Sun Coast section of the Florida Chapter of the American Planning Association (FAPA) graciously provides scholarships for USF’s Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) students to attend the FAPA annual conference. This generous support helps fulfill the Sun Coast’s mission to promote the professional development of emerging planners, and offers students an unparalleled educational and networking opportunity at a formative stage in their careers. Below, this year’s conference scholarship award winners share their experiences at this year’s conference, held in Sandestin on September 10-13, 2019.

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Sam Becker
Last year, I went into the FAPA conference as a novice in the field, ready to learn but not comprehending all the great information being dispersed. This year was a different experience for me as I am one year into my Master's Degree in Urban and Regional Planning at USF with a few planning internships under my belt. I felt like I was able to grasp the higher-level concepts being discussed in sessions—and relate them to the knowledge obtained from the classroom—to form conclusions and talking points for future dialogue with professors and students.

Thanks to the Sun Coast section of FAPA, me and five of my classmates, future peers in the planning field, were able to take this great opportunity to network and develop our professional skills. We attended informative sessions about topics like ADUs, scenario-based transportation planning in Florida, and sustainability measures taking place in local communities. We then deliberated on what we learned and how we can bring the information back to our classmates that weren't able to attend. These conversations offered me hope and inspiration for the current generation of planners, as well as the next wave of young thinkers who are focused on inclusivity, connectivity, and equity in the planning field.

Some highlights included networking with folks doing work in Pasco and Osceola County; during my last internship, I did due diligence for potential Planned Developments in those locations and I was interested on how those counties are dealing with development and expansion. I also enjoyed linking up with alumni and former co-workers who were able to share the awesome things they’ve also been working on. I left the conference feeling inspired to learn even more about planning, and how to engage in my own local community, because having well-intentioned and thought out planning is of dire need for the underserved populations of our state.

Amanda Harig
Throughout my first conference experience, I found myself contemplating which session to go to next because there were so many great ones! One of my favorite sessions was City of St. Petersburg Integrated Sustainability Action Plan (ISAP): A Model of Sustainability, Resiliency, and a Clean Energy Roadmap Planning Effort. I found this session particularly interesting due to my interests in environmental planning and sustainable transportation. This session gave me insight into how sustainability plans come to fruition, as well as how clean energy road maps can impact municipalities in so many positive ways.

My second favorite session was I Can See Clearly Now: Creating a Vision-Driven Comprehensive Plan. The techniques used to create the City of Titusville’s comprehensive plan were innovative. I thought the public participation in this plan was astounding and showed how public input can truly shape the future of a city. During the conference, I had the opportunity to speak with planners from the Tampa Bay area as well as from all over the state. During the first night reception, a planner from Orange County told me and other students that we are the future. This really resonated with me because it is truly up to us to continue the plans that are being set into motion today. It is important for us to continue their legacy! Finally, I would like to thank the Sun Coast section of FAPA for giving me the opportunity to attend.

Andrew Harris
I would like to start by taking the opportunity to thank the Sun Coast section of FAPA for the scholarship award and the opportunity to attend this year’s FAPA Conference in Sandestin. This was a great experience and very valuable towards my professional development as an urban planner. There were plenty of networking opportunities and I had some great conversations with professionals from both the private and public sectors across the state. Many of the sessions I attended focused on making our communities more resilient through a variety of strategies like shoreline restoration and post-disaster planning.

Some other interesting sessions covered ways to improve comprehensive planning: St. Pete has done a great job of integrating sustainable actions into their plan, and Titusville (my hometown) has created a vision-driven comprehensive plan that reflects the communities’ visions, goals, and values. For me, I learned the most from sessions that were applicable to my work as an intern. Topics covered included increasing multi-modal accessibility, improving project proposals/RFPs, and facilitating economic development at the county level. I highly recommend attending these conferences and will be looking forward to attending again this time next year!