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Mayoral candidates touch on tourism, transient occupancy tax

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San Diego's tourism industry was a $7.5 billion boost to the economy last year, and three of the four major mayoral candidates each expressed their views on how to keep the engine fueled.

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher and Councilman Carl DeMaio expressed their views during a meeting co-sponsored by the San Diego Hotel-Motel Association, the San Diego Lodging Industry Association and the San Diego County chapter of the California Restaurant Association. Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista) had a scheduling conflict and was unable to attend.

KUSI's Steve Bosh, who moderated the program, set the stage by noting that about $177 million in transient occupancy taxes were generated in San Diego County last year.

DeMaio said he believes that within five years, the amount of transient occupancy tax revenue generated could easily exceed $300 million annually.

"And it could be done without increasing taxes," DeMaio added.

Dumanis agreed.

"I don't want to see an increase in the TOT. I don't believe it is necessary," Dumanis said. "If we build out the capacity, that will increase the revenues."

DeMaio, who said that he has tried to keep as much of the transient occupancy tax in tourism promotion coffers as possible, said it would be a mistake to raise the tax's rate of 10.5 percent.

"I am opposed to a TOT increase," DeMaio said. "I don't want to pour money in the black hole of government."

Fletcher said regardless of what is done with the transient occupancy tax monies, San Diego needs to bankroll some of the estimated $1 billion worth of deficiencies in infrastructure.

"People told me that these are the worst friggin' roads they had ever ridden on, and that they wouldn't be back," Fletcher said.

"We have money for infrastructure, but it gets mired in bureaucracy in purchasing and contracting," Dumanis said, adding that she has seen cases where a filled-in pothole was dug up for sewer repairs the following week.

"Once I become mayor, you can count on me to be a bureaucracy buster," she said.

DeMaio advocated for a lockbox for infrastructure that, unlike the TOT monies that go into the general fund, couldn't be diverted.

Each of the three candidates said the expansion of the Convention Center is vital to keep conventions like Comic-Con here and attract new ones. While each may have had some reservations about the financing plan, they seemed to have fewer qualms about the hotels (at least those near the Convention Center) assessing themselves to bankroll the expansion, than increasing the TOT.

Dumanis also said that if elected mayor, she intends to seek ways to bring more cruise ships to San Diego. Fletcher countered that this is difficult to do if people are afraid to go to Mexico.

Fletcher emphasized that San Diego County doesn't exist in a vacuum and that Mexico must continue to be part of the tourism equation.

"I met with President Calderon, and we spoke about the border region as being a cultural and an economic opportunity for both countries," Fletcher said.

"Mexico is losing dollars as well," DeMaio said, adding that the sportfishing industry has been hit particularly hard.

He added that another challenge will be to keep Asia Pacific travelers from being too Los Angeles-focused when they travel to California.

"They might just think of L.A., and that has to change," DeMaio said.

DeMaio suggested the one event that could bring visitors from not just the immediate vicinity, but also around the world will be the Balboa Park Centennial in 2015.

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