Glynn County commissioners are set to talk about a new tax on businesses to pay for tourism-related improvements at their Tuesday work session.
Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau President Scott McQuade said that proceeds from a tourism improvement district could go to pay for various infrastructure improvements, signage, gateways and beautification in specific areas of the county.
“In the past, we’ve considered the bed tax may be the only way to fund these improvements, but what I’m going to talk about Tuesday is the opportunity to look at the tourism improvement district as another potentially viable source for funding some infrastructure improvements, and specifically some tourism infrastructure improvements,” McQuade said.
“Some of those improvements very much benefit the people as well. So maybe signage doesn’t benefit the residents as much, because they know how to get to places, but beautification of the gateways, for instance, would benefit not only the visitors ... but allows residents to enjoy those improvements as well as helping property values and such.”
Similar to a tax allocation district, in a tourism improvement district tax money is collected from specific types of businesses in a limited area and used for improvements only within that area.
“That district assesses itself and uses its funds to beautify main street or something along those lines,” McQuade said. “It’s very similar to that, but it works specifically for tourism improvements and would be something that’s levied upon a specific category of business. In other words, not all businesses have to join the assessment. It could be specifically hoteliers for instance.”
The bed tax, a five percent tax on hotel and motel room rentals, can be increased to cover the same improvements, McQuade said, but more money can be raised through the tax district from those who directly benefit from said improvements.
“The primary reason (to use the tax district over increasing the bed tax) would be because there’s a lot more resources specifically for infrastructure improvements, where the bed tax tops out at a pretty shallow funding level for improvements,” McQuade said.
“The bed tax law specifies what amount can be spent in different categories, such as marketing promotion, the government’s share and infrastructure improvements ... The tourism improvement district could almost double the amount of money that can be spent on infrastructure versus using the bed tax mechanism.”
McQuade said he’s not requesting the commission create a tourism improvement district. He only wants to bring the commissioners up to speed on the concept.
McQuade also plans to update the commission on a project to install new way-finding signs — signs directing visitors to locations of interest — around the county.
“We’re hoping to get final approval of the ability to start moving forward with actually doing the signage program,” McQuade said.
The CVB agreed to replace the signs on St. Simons Island, while the city of Brunswick will handle those in the city limits. Any signs outside those two areas are up to the county, McQuade said.
Also on the commission agenda is regulation of businesses operating on public beaches.
While most businesses on the beach are harmless, recent issues have raised the question of whether there should be more restrictions specific to beach businesses.
“What we have is a concession that’s renting out beach chairs and beach umbrellas, supposedly someone who’s in costume, dressed up as a mermaid, selling the right to take pictures,” said county commission chairman Mike Browning. “Most concerning, there’s an ultralight (paraglider) taking off from the beach and taking people on rides around the island.”
He said the commission is particularly concerned with the paraglider. Pilots coming into the airport believe the presence of the glider — which he said has no transponder or voice communication — presents an air-flight hazard to operations at the McKinnon St. Simons Airport, Browning said.
“We had an issue with an operator attempting to operate at Coast Guard beach with a paraglider, which according to regulations is an ultralight, and obviously it was in conflict with the airspace around the airport,” said Robert Burr, executive director of the Glynn County Airport Commission.
Commissioner Peter Murphy, who represents St. Simons Island, supports some type of regulation on beach businesses.
“We go all the way from a relatively innocuous mermaid selling the right to take pictures with herself on the beach to an ultralight aircraft potentially posing a threat to incoming aircraft at the McKinnon airport,” Murphy said. “They do have to have a business license, but the ordinance doesn’t stipulate what they can or can’t operate on the beach.”
Community Development Director Pamela Thompson said beach businesses are something of a grey area in the county’s ordinances.
“We never really had a process or procedure laid out as to what kind of businesses we allow to operate or how they can operate,” Thompson said.
Glynn County staff members will make their case to the commission on Tuesday and ask for some form of guidance as to how to proceed.
“Our main goal in this is to make sure we’re being equitable to everyone who wants to operate on the beach and that everyone is being held to the same rules and that the rules are fair. That’s why we’re bringing this to the board,” Thompson said.
“... Lisa Gurganus, the parks and recreation manager, has been collecting and poring through other beach communities’ regulations, and she’s going to explain how others regulate businesses on the beach. We’re not going to reinvent the wheel. We’re going to look at what other communities have done.”
Lastly, the commission is expected to talk about the bicycles on sidewalks.
Legally speaking, the county features three forms of sidewalk: actual sidewalks, multi-use paths and bike trails.
Murphy admitted he was not entirely clear on the difference between the three, and that was one of the reasons he wanted to bring up the subject.
Bikes can ride on bike trails, but not on sidewalks and possibly not on multi-use paths, according to county ordinance.
“The implication is there are different rules of the road when a bicyclist is riding on one of those structures,” Murphy said. “Currently, the ordinances say bikes can’t ride on sidewalks, and there are rumors that cops are ticketing people for doing so. Not true.”
He also wanted to broach the subject of right of way.
He referenced a recent accident, in which a car turning off of Demere Road ran into a cyclist in the crosswalk.
“The car has right of way in that instance, and the guy was riding his bike and either didn’t see the car or thought he had right of way, so I put this on the agenda to start the conversation about who has right of way,” Murphy said.
“I’m not giving you the definitive answers here. I’m raising the questions we need answers to ... At the end of the day, I’m hopeful we can find an accommodation whereby people will be able to ride on these paths without restriction, but with the understanding that when cars are turning into neighborhoods or shopping centers, the bikers need to have situational awareness and understanding that they need to look out for these cars for their own safety.”
The meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday on the second floor of the Harold Pate Building, 1725 Reynolds St. in downtown Brunswick.