Anaheim City Council Majority is OK with Visit Anaheim Holding Onto Millions of Bailout Dollars

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The Anaheim Convention Center.

A majority of Anaheim City Council members Tuesday night weren’t interested in potentially getting up to $4 million back from the $6.5 million in bailout money handed to Visit Anaheim over six months ago to advertise a closed Disneyland-resort area.  

“By end of calendar year 2020, Visit Anaheim is anticipated to expend $2.5-3.0 million of the $6.5 million authorized in economic recovery funding, allocated from Anaheim Convention Center reserve account, with additional funds anticipated to be programmed as a phased reopening is authorized by the State of California,” reads a report issued Monday by Visit Anaheim officials. 

Councilwoman Denise Barnes has been asking for a public accounting of the money for months. 

Visit Anaheim is the advertising bureau of the resort and convention center industry in the city, which is normally funded through a self-imposed bed tax from the resort hotels. 

The bailout, led by Mayor Harry Sidhu, originally came out of a convention center reserve fund, but the city later dipped into the $33 million in federal coronavirus relief money it got — previously targeted for spending tied directly to the virus. 

At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, Councilman Jose Moreno proposed the city ask for the unspent money back and use it for community needs. 

“So we can use it for rent relief, food distribution and to support the employees who have been laid off by the Disneyland resort,” Moreno said. 

Only Barnes supported him. 

Under Anaheim’s rules, Moreno needed a third vote in favor of his proposal before it could get agendized. 

The rules to get an item on the agenda were changed early last year, shortly after Sidhu took office. 

The changes have been used to silence Barnes and Moreno in nearly all of their policy proposals since then, including limiting public council discussion of the Angel Stadium negotiations. The panel’s majority voted to sell the stadium and the roughly 153 acres it sits on last Tuesday for $150 million. 

“They were given the money in April, May and June … to promote a closed resort. But we are now in October. How much money was spent, what did we see out of that money?” Moreno asked earlier in the meeting. 

“The report indicates they will spend $3 million by the end of  the year,” said newly hired City Manager James Vanderpool. 

Former City Manager Chris Zapata was abruptly fired in April, shortly after publicly cautioning Sidhu and the council against giving Visit Anaheim $6.5 million and suggesting a lower amount with a strict accounting of the money. He also sent council members a memo raising concerns about the advertising bureau’s high salaries

“How much have they spent?” Moreno asked. 

“That’s not in the report,” Vanderpool replied. 

Moreno said he’s concerned about potential issues if Visit Anaheim’s holding onto the money. 

“We could really use those $3.5 million for people instead of putting it away in some business account,” Moreno said. “Now we’re talking about federal dollars being chipmunked. I hope we don’t get in trouble for that.” 

The Visit Anaheim report claimed numerous events have been rebooked, in addition to new convention center bookings. 

“The total events remaining as of October 1, 2020 is 154 events in new and rebooked business, generating $719,484,247 in total economic impact to the destination, as well as estimated [hotel tax] and sales tax to the city of Anaheim of nearly $12 million (185 percent or nearly double the return on the city’s investment in economic recovery funding to Visit Anaheim),” reads the document. 

Councilman Trevor O’Neil said Visit Anaheim’s report proves the bailout was a right move. 

“That was never about Visit Anaheim. It’s about protecting our future revenue streams. And we already know from this report that we’ve seen that we’ve already generated a return on that investment,” O’Neil said near the end of the meeting. 

The city is facing a roughly $100 million deficit and it’s unclear when Disneyland can reopen during the pandemic.

“So it’s important to me that we do continue to support that investment in protecting our revenue stream. That package — it makes sense now, it made sense then. So it works,” O’Neil said. 

Meanwhile, it’s unknown when convention centers across the state will reopen.

At a news conference last week, Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, said guidelines aren’t ready to be released yet. 

Ghaly also said it will likely be awhile before people see convention halls reopened. 

“People had hoped transmission rates would come down low enough so activities could be permitted that aren’t today, but we have a lot of time and data yet to see before we can really say something like a large convention will be allowed.”

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio