116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Guests at Cedar Rapids’ hotels pay a small fee for every room night. The City of Cedar Rapids uses those funds, called Hotel/Motel taxes, to support city-owned facilities such as the Alliant Powerhouse and the ImOn Ice Arena. If revenues beyond those obligations are available, the funds also support nonprofit organizations and attractions that make Cedar Rapids a great place to live and visit thorough a competitive grant process. Significantly, those contributions often are operational funds — some of the hardest dollars for nonprofits to come by.
While the amount of revenue from this visitor-paid tax fluctuates based on the ebb and flow of the number of annual overnight visitors, it historically has generated about $2 million annually for local attractions and venues. This supports nonprofits that both attract visitors, and that we as citizens also enjoy.
Until a few years ago, Hotel/Motel funds designated for nonprofits (arts, culture, visitor attractions) were overseen by a citizen-led committee, appointed by the City Council. Changes to that process a few years ago were both good and bad.
On the positive side, moving to a multiyear funding cycle instead of an annual cycle has provided longer term certainty for nonprofits and has been celebrated by grant recipients.
But elimination of citizen involvement has been more problematic.
As former chairpersons for that group, we can assure you the process for evaluating applications was thorough and documented, and followed a scoring matrix designed for several categories of nonprofits. Committee allocation recommendations were then passed on to the City Council for approval. Every year, hundreds of citizen hours went into reviewing and recommending funding for area arts and culture organizations. A transparent process helped to keep it non-political.
When the grant allocations returned to a system led by elected officials, it took away the citizen-led, documented process, and from an optics perspective, can be construed as a political football, whether intentional or not. We objected then to removing citizen input into allocations to arts and culture organizations. We believe that retaining, restructuring and perhaps streamlining a citizen-led review process for Hotel/Motel tax funds better represents our community values, our commitment to our culture for visitors and residents alike, and ensures that politics stay out of the allocation process.
With Hotel/Motel funding in the news recently, this presents an opportunity to improve how allocations are evaluated, and bring it back to a more transparent, citizen-led process. It is our hope that the Council sees this as an opportunity as well, and once again engages residents in the distribution of these important funds.
Jen Neumann is a former Hotel/Motel Tax Committee chair and CEO of de Novo Marketing: firstname.lastname@example.org. Carl Sefl is a former H/M Tax chair, former Chair of the Convention and Visitors Bureau and former Exec. Dir. Of Marketing Services for Kirkwood Community College: email@example.com