The City of Omaha is considering a series of budget increases for the Convention and Visitors Bureau — enough to double its contribution over the next five years.
An agreement between Douglas County, which owns the agency, and the city, which operates it, is set to expire at the end of the year. That has prompted a renewed discussion between the two governments about who should fund efforts to get more conventions and tourists booking visits in Omaha.
For now, the county chips in about $3 million, which comes from lodging and stadium taxes. The city has run the bureau since 2002 but has generally not contributed at the level of the county.
In recent years, Omaha's annual assistance has topped out at $500,000. It has also been cut completely; in 2009, Mayor Jim Suttle pulled the money to help balance the city's budget.
Some county officials — and people in the tourism industry — have called on the city to boost its spending, arguing that Omaha lags behind Denver, Kansas City and other cities in its efforts to promote local attractions.
The 2014 budget that the City Council and Mayor Jean Stothert approved includes a significant boost, providing $1.1 million for the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Now Stothert is looking to step up that amount. In a proposal to the county this month, Stothert suggested increasing the city's contribution by $200,000 each year and continuing that for four more years. That would top out at $1.9 million in 2018.
The mayor said she knows Omaha's tourism promotion isn't keeping pace with that of other cities, noting one report that said a city of Omaha's size should be putting about $7 million toward those efforts. But she said it will take some time to carve out enough space in the budget for major increases.
“When we do the next agreement, we can re-evaluate and go up to more,” she said. “We can't do it all at once.”
Douglas County Board member Chris Rodgers said he understands that Stothert is managing budget demands from several departments. But he said he'd like to see the city match the county's $3 million contribution.
“My view on it is that it is a hidden industry that's untapped,” he said. “I think we need to put a little more money into it to rev it up.”
Rodgers said hoteliers and other business owners who profit from tourism should push the city for more support.
At the County Board's most recent meeting, board member Mike Boyle said the county should get out of the Convention and Visitors Bureau altogether. He said the current agreement between the city and the county was a “bad idea gone totally amok.”
“It unnecessarily puts a strain between these two governments,” he said.
Board members agreed to take another two months to work out a new deal with the city. City Attorney Paul Kratz said the gap between contracts will not affect the bureau's operations.