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Jax Daily Record Thursday, May 22, 201412:00 PM EST

Tourism council questions annual funding for TaxSlayer Bowl

by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

One of the longest-standing partnerships the City of Jacksonville has maintained might be coming to an end.

The Duval County Tourist Development Council on Wednesday discussed the possibility of reducing – or perhaps even eliminating – the city’s financial support of the TaxSlayer Bowl, formerly the Gator Bowl.

On May 6, 2013, the Gator Bowl Association received from the development council an award offer/acceptance letter spelling out financial support for the game for six years, through the bowl game schedule following the 2019 college football season.

The award is an expense reimbursement grant to supplement payouts to participating teams in the amount of $400,000 this year and then increasing by $20,000 each year until the grant reached $500,000 in 2020.

To receive the money, the association must document hotel room nights associated with the game, although no minimum number of room nights is specified in the letter, and that the participating teams were paid their fee for playing in the game.

City Council Assistant Auditor Janice Billy said Wednesday the grant for the game is included each year in the development council’s budget.

Annette Hastings, development council executive director, said since the grant for the game is placed into the council’s annual budget, game officials are required each year to present to the council and request the funds.

Gator Bowl Sports President and CEO Rick Catlett, who was executive director of the former Gator Bowl Association, presented the request on May 15. It was granted by the council. (Wednesday’s meeting was an extension of the May 15 meeting.)

City Council member Richard Clark, who was not at the last week’s meeting, questioned whether funding the bowl game year-after-year is the best use of development council funds, which are derived from the bed tax collected on hotel rooms.

“I’d rather fund 10 new things than to continue to fund the same things over and over,” he said.

Development council member Sonny Bhikha also questioned the annual grant and said the purpose of the council is to provide seed money to help create new sources of tourism revenue.

“Every year, we make an exception for the Gator Bowl. The amount of money that goes every year for that one event is inexcusable,” Bhikha said.

City Council President Bill Gulliford, who is chairman of the development council, acknowledged the status accorded to the event each year.

He described the game as “a sacred cow.”

Asked Wednesday about the award offer/acceptance letter, Catlett said while it might not constitute a contract, the city has made the commitment to support the game through the bowl schedule after the 2019 college football season.

“As far as we’re concerned, we and the city have an agreement for the next five years,” he said.

Assistant General Counsel Jim McCain said the issue has come up before and the city views the letter as a binding contract.

Also on Wednesday’s agenda was a presentation by attorney Paul Harden, who elaborated on the proposal first presented last week for the council to approve $200,000 for marketing efforts in London associated with the Fulham Football Club owned by Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan.

Last Thursday, after hearing the proposal presented the first time by city interim director of sports and entertainment Joel Lamp, the board declined to fund the grant entirely, but did approve a grant of $25,000 to get the program underway on July 26, when Fulham will play at EverBank Field.

Harden said he was “third-string” because Khan and Jaguars President Mark Lamping are out of town attending an NFL meeting.

He advocated for the expenditure, explaining there is a “synergy” between Khan’s two teams “that we hope the city will glom onto.”

He cited the success of the Jaguars game in London last season as was an opportunity to attract new businesses to Jacksonville from the United Kingdom and Europe.

The grant would be used to create a year-round marketing presence for Jacksonville at Craven Cottage, Fulham’s home soccer stadium through signage and through marketing efforts associated with Fulham’s television broadcasts.

Harden said the marketing at the stadium “hits a target-rich environment” for tourism.

Harden described the $200,000 grant request as “a relatively small investment” that “could result in a long-term relationship between the two areas.”

The council was concerned that the proposal made by Lamp was incomplete, since there was no budget included in the request. The council asked the request be presented in complete form at its next scheduled meeting Aug. 14.

What Harden presented also lacked amounts for the value of the advertising campaign, but he assured the council the value of what he presented was in excess of the amount requested.

“If I put numbers on it, it would add up to more than $100,000,” he said.

Council member Barbara Goodman pointed out that Wednesday’s meeting was a continuation of the meeting that began on Thursday and the decision already had been made for a more complete proposal to be presented in August.

“We’ll look at it again in August,” said Gulliford.

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