JIM PARKER: Is it time to cut Riviera Centre's subsidy?
I LIKE the ERC — like many I have never really got used to calling it the Riviera International Conference Centre, by the way. I have attended many functions there and it is a fantastic venue.
Thousands of people enjoy its pool and leisure facilities and it generates millions of pounds for the local economy from its conference business.
I also have a lot of time for its new board of directors who have been jettisoned in to find ways of making it more cost efficient and less of a drain on the public purse.
But that's where the 'but' comes in. The ERC continues to need the support of a Torbay Council annual subsidy of around £640,000 and that, now more than ever, is coming under increased pressure from all sides.
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It has taken a hit — around six or seven per cent — on the handout, but there are some who want to see a further reduction.
Opposition councillors have it in their sights as the council is still grappling with the final details of its £10million budget cuts.
They want to see thousands more taken from the ERC cash subsidy and used for other projects like the threatened park and ride in Churston, under-threat street wardens, community alarms for the elderly and the setting up of a Torbay Community Development Trust aimed at galvanising the voluntary sector to name but a few.
Interestingly, Labour councillor Darren Cowell, a member of the opposition calling for the cash switch, draws a contrast between the ERC cuts and that of the English Riviera Tourism Company.
He says: "I firmly believe it is only right that the subsidy to the Riviera International Conference Centre should be reduced by 15 per cent in line with that cut from another arm's length council company, the English Riviera Tourism Company."
The ERTC has already made efficiency savings of 30 per cent, but has been told it will have to manage with another 15 per cent in its council funding for the next 12 months.
Let's look at some interesting facts and figures from both organisations.
I believe the budget of the old tourist board, before the ERTC was born, was around £1.2million as recently as 2007.
The budget for the ERTC, which does virtually the same job, is being cut from £585,000 to £500,000 for 2013. The budget is therefore one third of what it used to be for looking after the holiday industry.
Funding for the tourism company helps to promote 1,000 tourist businesses on the English Riviera.
It supports an industry employing 13,000 people — around 18 per cent of the workforce.
And tourism generates around £385million business for the Bay.
The funding also helps generate three million visitors to the resort annually, with two million staying visitors and one million day visitors.
As I say, over the years, the council grant to the ERC has always been around the £640,000 mark.
It employs dozens of staff and is understood to generate about £7million to £8million worth of business.
That sort of contribution cannot be sniffed at.
But in a nutshell, we are now in a position where the grant for the ERC will probably be at least £100,000 higher than the council funding for the organisation tasked with championing, promoting and marketing Torbay's entire holiday industry.
The ERC was in the spotlight under the former Nick Bye mayoral regime.
There was talk of closing it down, knocking it down and trying to find a hotel operator to go on site alongside a new model to boost conference trade.
Current mayor Gordon Oliver, however, promised to put his faith in the seafront complex during his electioneering and was true to his word.
Money has been found for repair works and he is keen to continue with the council subsidy.
Nobody wants to see the ERC simply moth-balled and that, no doubt, includes the ERTC.
The conference industry is an important part of Torbay's overall tourism and all-year round offer and we cannot do without it.
I know the new ERC board are doing their utmost at looking at ways of making the complex work and increase revenues.
But can they do it with the existing complex?
Will the subsidy for a centre — which 'wasn't going to cost the tax payers a penny' when it was built — ever be reduced to levels which are more acceptable to the ordinary man in the street and those opposition councillors?
Time is not on our side.
A tourism chief was only this week warning that West Country's tourism industry is at 'tipping point'.
The view from Laura Holt, chairman of the Devon Tourism Partnership, comes as figures show Devon lost two per cent of its tourism trade between 2002 and 2011 and visitor numbers to the county were down last year by 10 per cent.
Is this really a good time to cut the budgets of bodies like the English Riviera Tourism Company?
No doubt, they will take them on the chin and get on with the business in hand.
But the fight to Turn the Tide for tourism will be made that much harder.