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With summer just around the corner and an onslaught of out-of-towners visiting the Historic Triangle, the City of Williamsburg is looking at creating a new tax on admission tickets for Colonial Williamsburg and other attractions within city limits.
According to a report presented to City Council last week, the new admission tax is one of three tax increases under consideration as part of a larger “tourist development fund.” The other two potential taxes include increases to the city’s meal tax and room tax, raising both from five to seven percent.
“An admission tax is one of several options that could provide revenue for [the fund],” said city spokeswoman Lee Ann Hartmann. “Should the city decide to move forward with the admission tax option, the general admission to Colonial Williamsburg would be considered.”
Despite the fact that Colonial Williamsburg has a tax-exempt, nonprofit status under federal law, Virginia law allows the City of Williamsburg to add a surcharge on its ticket admissions.
If implemented, the tax would target tourists visiting “places of amusement or entertainment” such as Colonial Williamsburg or area museums, and the potential revenue gained from admission taxes could exceed $2 million annually, Hartmann said.
The goal of the fund would be to pay for things as varying as public bathrooms on Duke of Gloucester Street to business improvement grants and regional trails, explained City Manager Marvin Collins in a presentation to City Council April 10.
“People in different elements of the community were asking for increased resources and city participation on projects,” Collins said of the potential tax. “There was a general feeling of the need to expand the tourism base and increase the gain of that impact on our community.”
While an admission tax may mean improvements for the city, for Colonial Williamsburg it could hurt the nonprofit’s bottom-line.
“The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation certainly understands the city’s desire to fund infrastructure improvements in support of the region’s tourism-based economy,” said Colonial Williamsburg Foundation spokesman Joseph Straw. “However, at a time when we are working hard to attract more young families with children to Colonial Williamsburg and the greater Williamsburg community, new taxes and increases in existing taxes would present an impediment to our progress.”
About half of all cities in Virginia have an admissions tax on entertainment venues, according to city documents. But for a city like Williamsburg, which shares its downtown with a museum, the price of admission goes hand in hand with the city’s tourism trade.
For Colonial Williamsburg ticket holders Carol and George Green, who were visiting Merchant’s Square Tuesday from Rochester, N.Y., an extra tax on admission would be enough to make them rethink their vacation.
“Price is a factor,” George Green said. “It’s expensive already. I hardly think they need to make it more of a destination.”
Carol Green said she’d be afraid the money made by any tax on tourism would make the area too developed for her taste.
“I’m against the tax because I think they have plenty of opportunity to make money,” she said. “From our perspectives, we’re older. We think our perspective would be similar with a lot of people.”
Other visitors who declined to speak on the record indicated that while they didn’t like the idea of a tax, it wouldn’t dissuade them from coming to the area, which is exactly the demographic the city would want to target with the tax.
“We often hear we need to invest in new infrastructure, and there just isn’t money available,” said Williamsburg business owner and city councilor Doug Pons. “It’s time, I believe, that some investment is made. No billionaire is going to show up and make the investment that we need to.”
The graph above compares current ticket prices from various attractions that could be affected by a tax increase to the ticket price with the new tax included.