We previously reported on Houston creating its first general plan. The overarching question raised was, should the city fix something that isn’t broken? As we look at Mayor Annise Parker’s 5-year, $85 million “cultural plan” in conjunction with Houston First’s $8.8 million tourism plan, can local politicians “shape culture” in the name of promoting tourism?

The cultural appeal of a city is arguably as important as job opportunity, cost of living, and infrastructure utility. But is culture something that is government-planned, or instead something that develops organically?

Both plans, totaling $93.8 million, will be funded by Houston’s hotel occupancy tax (H.O.T.). The City of Houston ties Anaheim, California for the highest H.O.T. tax rates in the nation at 17%. Despite levying such a high rate, there’s been no discussion of reducing the burden. Instead, government officials are busy finding ways to spend more on new projects.

The H.O.T. is a tax that comes with specific spending restrictions from the state legislature. Houston First’s website says that H.O.T. funds go “toward projects that benefit the business of conventions and tourism.” What local residents usually actually see, however, is a slush fund for municipal politicians to advance their pet projects. Because this revenue is dedicated to convention and tourism development, officials look for non-conventional ways to spend it. Instead of encouraging superfluous spending, Texans should reevaluate the need for this “stimulus” tax in the first place.

There’s no denying that Houston’s art and tourism industries are major assets to the local economy—they employ more people than that of the Medical Center. But it’s naïve to think that the direction of the art industry could be better controlled by city planners.

As an article on Glasstire points out, “Houston has been a city of chaos, and from this mess were born some of the defining cultural landmarks.” The article goes on to mention everything from the Beer Can House to the Project Row Houses. Since the cultural plan calls for input from Houstonians, Bill Davenport makes the case for the need for a Houston Art Czar to ensure, “transparency, open dialogue, and efficiency,” somewhat similar to the failed George R. Brown Convention Center Sculpture Commission which was anything but transparent or efficient.

Accompanying Mayor Parker’s cultural vision, Houston First Corp. unveiled an $8.8 million plan to “boost tourism” to the city. The corporation’s goal is to bring 20 million annual visitors to Houston by 2018. The plan includes the first taxpayer funded advertising in Mexico, a tourism summit this fall, and promotional trips for travel agents to visit the city. Houston officials must believe third time is a charm because they have twice shown their inability to effectively advertise with the failed “Houston’s Hot” and “Expect the Unexpected” campaigns.

Being chosen as the host city for upcoming events like the NCAA Final Four, the Superbowl, and heavily attended FirstRobotics Championship, are evidence that business interests already see Houston’s tourism appeal without the aide of millions of dollars in local government spending.

Parker’s plans are yet another futile attempt by Houston’s politicians to control every aspect of the city using taxpayer money. Houston has grown to be a prosperous, culturally diverse, and tourist-friendly city with minimal government assistance. But with a coffer full of “excess” revenue that must be spent on “economic development,” officials again choose to advance projects that more closely reflect attempts to create political legacies when they should be working to leave more resources in the hands of local businesses and consumers.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.


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