Town Hall Meeting: Hotel/Motel tax increase

by Charles Gerian

Following the discussion about the hospital sales tax during last night's Town Hall meeting held at the Fairgrounds Event Center, the discussion of the Hotel/Motel sales tax increase began.

“Currently, Blackwell has a 6% Hotel/Motel tax,” Mayor T.J. Greenfield started, “it might be higher and lower across the United States […] Tonkawa is close by, they have a 5% tas but they don't have a hotel they can collect on. They have the casino and they can't collect on that. I don't know if their rates can compare with the good quality of hotels that you have here [in Blackwell.]”

Mayor Greenfield continued, going to name off the funds and projects that have directly been contributed to by Blackwell's collection of the Hotel/Motel tax dating back to the late 1990's.

“Roughy $3 million dollars has been collected in that time frame,” Greenfield said, “averaging about $150 thousand dollars a year. Within the past five years that average has been $120 thousand a year from people passing through the community. Not only does Blackwell benefit from the hotel/motel tax but they also benefit from that added sales tax.”

“That money has helped fund the softball complex, Summer Fest, Christmas lights, fireworks, Chamber of Commerce support, the golf course, pocket park, Kay County Free Fair donations, the Blackwell museum, our website, as well as improvements that have been completed within the last year and a half- two years here at our Fairgrounds including the Livestock building, both midways, street lighting, and any other projects that create tourism. That is what this money goes to,” Mayor Greenfield concluded.

“An important thing to remember is that this tax will not effect you directly unless you go out there to stay at one of our hotels,” Ward 4 Councilman Steve Marquardt said.

“Now, that can happen. Anyone remember our thousand year ice storm? I had plenty of neighbors who went to stay out there, I stayed at home and kept a fire burning so my pipes wouldn't freeze while my wife took off” he laughed before adding with a more serious tone that “This is for us to rake in so we can get more money into the coffers for the very things that we want.”

Mayor Greenfield added that they're attempting to work out that if anyone is displaced from their home and stays in a Blackwell hotel that- upon providing proof of residency- they could be exempt from the tax.

Mitzi Graham, Manager of Blackwell's Super 8 Motel, spoke as an opponent of the tax.

“We're going to lose hotels,” Graham said, “...we're fighting tooth and nail with Ponca, with Newkirk, with everybody to get people to stay here […] right now out of six hotels, four are about to close. I work 88 hours a week to keep [Super 8] open. I live on site to keep it open. We do not need this tax.”

“There's not a one of us in this industry that supports it, I don't know where they are- I guess they couldn't come- put there's not one of us that supports it.”

Greenfield thanked her for her comments and then clarified that with the vote passing Blackwell would be at the same percent tax of the surrounding areas.

“This increase could provide roughly $50-$60 thousand dollars in additional funding a year to the City to use for promotion tourism, that could be our parks, or our Fairgrounds.”

Greenfield then explained a loophole that, for long-term customers like oilfield or wind-farm crews, would negate the tax for those staying longer than 30 days.

“I was reading an article from Tallequah's newspaper,” Greenfield said, “some of the hotel/motel operators actually went to the council to propose the increase going from 4% to 6%. They saw where it was beneficial to them to help fund the City to do more tourism related activities, to bring more people in.”

He continued:

“There was a misunderstanding that this would be a new tax everyone is paying. This is a tax people would only be paying who are staying at the hotels at night, this is not an overall sales tax.”

One member of the audience claimed the tax would drive potential customers away who would “look up the sales tax” of an area before deciding to stop by for the night and, depending on the amount, would choose to keep driving.

In a 2015 survey conducted by HVS Global- a firm that specializes in hotel tax advisory, management, and risk management- the top 150 cities with the highest lodging taxes only included two from Oklahoma which were Tulsa and Oklahoma City at 13.52% and 13.88% respectively.

Along I-35, the City of Wichita in Kansas has a sales tax of 7.5% with a hotel tax of 6.00% and an added tourism dee of 2.75% with some downtown areas adding another 2% for Wichita's Community Improvement Districts.

“We're doing some phenomenal things,” City Manager Janet Smith spoke to the audience, “we're doing phenomenal things with out tourism like our Barn Quilt Trail. If you haven't seen what's going on with that, we've got tons of people coming in for that. That is funded through your tourism dollars and I understand that we're going from 6% to 8%, that gets us in line with most communities around and grants us additional funding.”

Smith continued:

“When people come into town, they're paying that money. That money goes into a fund where we will use it to continue working on and building tourism. Our I-35 corridor we have failed to take advantage of. We don't have signs that we need like for our hospital, we need a museum sign, our geo-cache sign, Barn Quilt...we have a lot going on and we're trying to attract more people coming in. We really are. So, it's going to take time but we're going to develop that area.”

“I'm sorry it's a negative thing for you right now,” Smith addressed Graham in the audience,

“I can see that it is, I can see that you're passionate about it, but these additional funds will help to get [hotels] over that hump because it's going to develop Blackwell's corridor so we bring in people traveling on I-35. We're going to create interest in Blackwell. There's a lot of good things going on here right now, we have a lot of good momentum and we've got to keep that moving forward. I encourage you all to vote yes on [the sales tax] because we have a lot going on and we'll unveil more in the future [...] it's a lot of strong, positive momentum.”

An audience member involved in November's craft show held at the Event Center spoke to Mayor Greenfield and Manager Smith, saying that Blackwell needed to “pull itself together and stop fighting” because if not “[Blackwell] will become a ghost town […] we have to have things here. We've got to try.”

Greenfield talked briefly about how successful the Event Center and Livestock Barn have been for attracting shows and attractions, pointing to the weeklong Local and County Livestock show held every February which moved from its long-standing home in Newkirk to Blackwell's new complex.

City Manager Smith added that the City of Blackwell would be working to attract new shows and events.

“It'd be foolish not to, this is such a great facility,” she spoke, “the City has invested so much into it. One of my priorities this year is going to planning events wether it be concerts or whatever we can. We're going to fully realize the facility here to bring people in.”

Greenfield thanked everyone for showing up, and he and City Manager Smith encouraged everyone to get out and vote and to be there to provide rides if needed to help friends and family exercise their rights as well. The Town Hall meeting ended just past 7:30 p.m.

Election day will be Tuesday, April 2nd.  Polls will be open 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.