A recent Villages-News.com story about the large disparity in the amount of money being paid to Villages town square performers in Sumter County raised some disturbing issues.
The pay scale for those performers, which ranged from $250 to $1,650 for a night of entertainment at Lake Sumter Landing Market Square and Brownwood Paddock Square, is public record because The Villages is accepting tourism grant money from Sumter County to the tune of $80,000. That money, raised through hotel and motel room taxes, is supposedly used to promote tourism. The criteria is supposed to center around how an event will affect hotel and motel use.
This past July, Sumter County commissioners approved a plan to distribute $386,000 in tourism grants, with a whopping $209,100 going to Villages-related projects. That news, alone, should have raised red flags galore, because the fact that some of those projects are receiving government money is laughable at best.
For instance, the annual Country Western Hoedown sponsored by The Villages Homeowners Advocates received $50,000. Think that event will pack local hotel rooms? Hardly.
The Buffalo Scholarship Foundation at The Villages Charter School received $55,100 to fund advertising and operating expenses for an annual Battle at The Villages basketball tournament. With the exception of players and parents that come in from out of town for the tournament, we’re guessing most of the fans who attend the event live right here in the tri-county area and won’t be staying at hotels or motels.
The Villages High School also was granted $16,000 to pay for advertising and operating expenses for the 64th annual Florida Athletic Coach Association All-Star Classic Event. See item above and apply the same logic.
The biggest boondoggle, of course, is the $80,000 paid to The Villages to help fund entertainment in the two Sumter County town squares. Can anyone with a straight face actually suggest that the mostly local acts playing the town squares bring in out-of-town fans who pack our hotels and motels on any given night? Nothing against those performers – there truly are some great ones out there and we’re lucky to have such high caliber musicians performing in The Villages – but we’re not talking about the likes of the Rolling Stones, Def Leppard or AC/DC here.
Rocky and the Rollers, at $1,650 per performance, is the highest-paid town square act. That group features a highly talented bunch of musicians who can bring a town square to life. But find one person in the audience who drove here or flew in from out of town to see their act and we’ll be happy to buy dinner for the whole band and that imaginary out-of-town guest.
Frankly, we find it disturbing at best that the privately-owned Villages, a billion-dollar company, is greedy enough to seek out tax dollars to help pay for entertainment that clearly is in place to sell homes. Yes, we know the money comes from hotel taxes, not the pockets of residents. But it’s still government money and the fact that the Developer of the largest retirement community in the world is willing to accept those funds says a lot – none of which is good.
We’ve heard members of The Villages brass speak before, most notably at the annual Lincoln Day Dinner put on by the Sumter County Republican Party. More than once we’ve heard leaders of the highly conservative home-building organization – some members of the Morse family’s fourth generation excluded – express their disdain for government handouts. They’re not big fans of welfare, they have concerns about Medicaid and any mention of Obamacare quickly leads to rolled eyes and lectures on all of the above.
For the record, we have no problem with their conservative values and their feelings on all of those issues. This is a free country – the greatest in the world – and we are all entitled to our own feelings and political beliefs.
But when you preach one thing – yes, at times it certainly sounds like preaching – and you practice another, that’s a whole different story. It’s hard to make an argument that you are against government handouts and then take the biggest slice of the tourism tax pie. That smacks of hypocrisy at the highest level and the Developer should be ashamed for letting this nonsense happen in the first place.
Another irritating issue with the tourism tax is that the city of Wildwood was turned down on a request to receive $12,422 to help pay for its annual Happy Birthday America Fourth of July event. This past event was one of the best the city has put on, with a fireworks show that rivaled plenty of others across the state. In fact, the city deserves plenty of praise for making this a premier event that we believe will bring in people from other areas who will want to spend a night or two to have a good time here.
If that’s not a tough enough pill for Wildwood to swallow, the Bushnell Fall Festival received $10,600 and the Sumter County Fair got $52,250 from the tourism tax. Will that money put more bodies in local hotels and motels? We don’t think so.
Also, as was pointed out in the recent story, there are no hotels on Villages property near Brownwood Paddock Square. And the Waterfront Inn in Lake Sumter Landing and the two motels by Interstate 75 are closer to Wildwood – the site of the fireworks display with the potential to bring in out-of-town guests – than Paddock Square, which stands little to no chance of attracting anyone for an overnight stay.
That said, we reiterate that it’s a complete farce for The Villages Developer to accept tax money to pay for entertainment on town squares that is in place to do one thing and one thing only – help sell homes. It’s the mantra of everything that goes on in the Developer’s money-making machine and apparently anything is fair game – ethics and common sense be damned!
So, if you are a performer and don’t want others to know how much The Villages is paying you to entertain on those two squares, we suggest you take your talents elsewhere. Because given what we’ve seen in this ridiculous situation – one that never would have existed several years ago – we can only begin to imagine the silliness that’s sure to come next.