Wednesday, February 21, 2024

City Council delays decision on historic tax hike

Williamsburg City Council voted unanimously Thursday to table resolutions regarding a proposed tax increase on dining out, admissions to amusements and hotel stays. (Iris Hyon/WYDaily)
Williamsburg City Council voted unanimously Thursday to table resolutions regarding a proposed tax increase on dining out, admissions to amusements and hotel stays. (Iris Hyon/WYDaily)

Williamsburg City Council made the unanimous decision Thursday to table proposed resolutions regarding an historic tax increase on dining out, admission tickets and hotel stays within the city.

The projected tax revenues of nearly $4.5 million would have established a new Tourism Development Fund, which the city says it will use to make a “generational investment” in Williamsburg.

“We really need to reinvigorate our tourism product in this community,” Mayor Paul Freiling said before asking council to consider the details of the measure before they vote on it. “In my estimation, this is a risk we need to take.”

Freiling’s recommendation to delay came after nearly two hours of public criticism. One central theme from the speakers was concern about the hastiness with which the resolutions were drafted.

“One of the reasons I can’t support this today is because I don’t know what we’re voting for,” said Councilman Benny Zhang. “As of right now with fractured community input and no consensus on this project, I need to know what we’re getting into here.”

According to Karen Riordan, president and CEO of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance, the most recent proposal was drafted during a three-week period. It was first introduced to the chamber with one taxing option on May 18. By Monday, the options had increased to six. 

If passed, the measure would levy up to a seven percent tax on dining, lodging and admission to area attractions. For tourists and locals alike taxes on dining out would be higher than in Richmond, Newport News, Poquoson, Norfolk, James City and York Counties, according to city documents.

Colonial Williamsburg has claimed the new tax would jeopardize their financial future.  

Rachel Marshall, retail manager of Ripley's Believe It or Not, believes the Tourism Development Funding admissions tax would push potential customers away.
Rachel Marshall, retail manager of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, believes the Tourism Development Funding admissions tax would push potential customers away. (Iris Hyon/WYDaily)

As retail manager of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Rachel Marshall is no stranger to people taking one look inside and walking away – not out of fear, but in reaction to the price of admission.

The implementation of the admissions tax portion of the Tourism Development Fund, Marshall claims, would potentially “push it over the top” and deter even more potential customers.

“I don’t think it would be helpful because it would increase prices that tourists already think are too high,” Marshall said.

While some tourists visiting the area said the tax increase wouldn’t affect their decision to visit the Historic Triangle, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation President Mitchell Reiss has said the tax increase would “damage Colonial Williamsburg’s core mission of sharing America’s enduring story.”

Arlene Ridgely recalls her first visit to Williamsburg without any difficulty because her daughter had just begun walking at the time. Much has changed in the 14 years since Ridgely first ate at Merchants Square staple The Cheese Shop, but her fondness for Colonial Williamsburg has not.

The tax increase would not affect her decision to return because she wouldn’t want “that piece of history to go away.” Regardless of higher prices for food and tourist attractions, Ridgely wants her daughter to bring her own children to Colonial Williamsburg someday.

For Councilman Doug Pons, relying on repeat tourists like Ridgely will not be enough. 

“We can no longer promote what we already have,” Pons said. “We can’t promote our way out of this problem, we need new product…We have to diversify our tourism offerings and invest in its infrastructure.”

Freiling said he believes the city needs investment, but that if the project fails voters will hold councilors accountable at the ballot boxes.

“We will have to be held responsible for the results,” Freiling said.

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