Santa Barbara County’s Board of Supervisors has narrowly approved a new tax rebate for hotel mega-projects.
Now it will be up to Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso to walk the walk and start moving dirt at the much debated, long-delayed Miramar Hotel and Cottages in Montecito.
And it will be up to the Board of Supervisors to walk the walk and approve a similar project in North Santa Barbara County or the Santa Ynez Valley should it be proposed.
Approval of the hotel tax rebate comes as Santa Barbara County grapples with lingering deficit problems that reflect too many generous pensions and too many years of no-growth policies. The structural deficit is between $10 million and $20 million a year.
The Miramar rebate, worth an estimated $15 million, comes in the form of a 15-year break on 70 percent of the hotel room taxes. But, according to estimates, Caruso’s project will generate about $135 million in sales taxes, property taxes and other revenue to the county over the next couple of decades — enough to fill a big part of the county’s deficit.
Getting from a tax-break vote to a ribbon cutting is no slam dunk. Because it essentially makes it a public-private project, the rebate likely means Caruso will have to pay prevailing wages on the project. Financing is still tough. And Montecito’s cranky residents could yet mount another effort to overturn the project through litigation.
The Miramar property itself is well into its second decade as a vacant lot and eyesore on Highway 101. First Ian Schrager of Studio 54 fame, then toy tycoon Ty Warner, took stabs at redevelopment and walked away. And it also is true that North Santa Barbara County is struggling with double-digit unemployment rates and a dearth of new opportunities, especially in construction. The new subsidy will enable any developer of a hotel project worth more than $50 million to tap the reduction in room taxes if it is built in an unincorporated area of the county.
Could the hotel room tax rebate spur a broader recovery for Santa Barbara County and help balance the books?
Now it’s up to Rick Caruso to move some dirt. And it’s up to the Board of Supervisors to look with an open mind at new economic development opportunities.