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ORLANDO-Orange County’s best barometer on the financial health of the area’s 119,000 hotel and motel rooms, the 5% room tax, logged in at $6.5 million for August, the lowest of the year.

The August number was even lower than December 2001 which dipped to $6.6 million, a 28% drop from November 2001. August collections were 8.7% lower than July and lower than the $7.1 million collections in August 2001.

The bulk of the room tax revenue is used to pay down debt on the $750 million, one-million-sf expansion of the Orange County Convention Center which hopes to be at 2.2 million sf of exhibition/meeting space in early 2003. That size would place Orange County among the top five largest convention sites in the United States, according to county tourism officials.

But with one month left to compute, September, county comptroller Martha O. Haynie and other county officials are not optimistic the 12-month total will reach either the initial projected figures of $112.6 million or the revised amount of $90.6 million. The number stands at $85.5 million for 11 months beginning with the county’s fiscal year on Oct. 1, 2001.

Haynie and officials at the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau couldn’t be reached at GlobeSt.com’s publication deadline. But new statistics from Smith Travel Research Inc. in Hendersonville, TN show average occupancy is down to 61.6%, a 6.2% decline from a year ago at this time. Average daily room rates dropped 4.2% to $71.88.

“That is outstanding, considering Disney and some of the other major independents were offering rooms for $30 to $50 per night right after 9-11,” says an International Drive hotelier who asked for anonymity. “The collection numbers look bad but it it’s not a disaster yet by a long shot.”

Collection numbers from Haynie’s office show the rate of decline was improving until August of this year.

For example, after October 2001 when the decrease from the preceding month was 28%, November 2001 was off 25.6% ($6.7 million); December, off 25.4% ($5.8 million); January 2002, off 21.6% ($7 million); February, off 13.5% ($8.7 million); March, off 10.9% ($10.7 million); April, off 8.4% ($9.3 million); May, off 5.4% ($8 million); June, off 6.4% ($8.4 million); and July, off 1.4% ($7.8 million).

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