Rogers: “Without the full support of the CVB, we’re not going to do this.”
The Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau heard a report from Link CEO Joe Higgins, voted down a request to fund the Legends Concert and discussed a policy governing vehicle usage, among other things, at their June 18 meeting.
While May’s meeting was unusually placid, this month’s meeting was marked by a return to the infighting and malice for which the CVB has become infamous.
The meeting started off civilly enough, with Link CEO Joe Higgins making a report on his agency’s recent activities.
“The economy is still struggling, but things are getting better,” Higgins said. “We pulled up the newest numbers this morning, and state unemployment was about 8.3 percent. Lowndes County was about 8.7 percent and the US was about 7.7 percent. That’s a lot better than those 11 percenters we were seeing a while ago. It’s also been covered a bit, but probably not to the extent that I hoped it would, and that’s the policoms. When we started the Link about nine years ago, we were ranked 374 and now we’re at 46. Last year we were 57. Last year we busted the top 10 percent, but now we’re a little better than that. If we keep doing what we’re doing there is a chance we could end up even higher. SiliCorr is telling us they’re going to start up in September. They first told us April or May, then it was July. With lending and money and permits and just stuff they now tell us September. I was told that by the COO. If that happens and those thousand construction workers come in and build that plant over the next 18 months, that’s the kind of thing that helps us hit a sweet spot and could elevate us even more.
“June is the Link’s birthday, and I went back and looked at some numbers,” Higgins said. “I know you’ve heard a lot of our numbers, unless you live under a rock. But I wanted to know what kind of impact we’ve had on community wealth in the ad valorem tax area. I wanted to know point-blank how much money we have put in the coffers. We’ve calculated that we’ve put about $10.6 million into the schools’ coffers. That’s ad valorem and fee in lieu, that’s an annual number. For the city that’s about $8 million a year. That’s about $18.6 million from our efforts. About 45 percent of our budget comes from the county, the city and CVB. That comes to about $1 million a year. The return to those entities is pretty big, we think.
“I think next year we’ll probably move into the number one county for assessed valuation of personal property,” Higgins said. “I think we were eighth when we started. I asked [Tax Assessor Greg Andrews] for a good quotable quote I could use tonight. He said our in lieu assessed valuations – those are projects that are over $100 million – just those are bigger that the assessed valuations of 65 other counties in Mississippi.”
Higgins described some of the Link’s non-industrial efforts.
“The first thing I want to mention is our seminar program,” Higgins said. “We brought people in, and we’ve had networking seminars. We’re going to do three this year. We’re doing one to help small business make social media work for them. We’re doing a first impression seminar, and we’re bringing in a renowned small business coach. We think in this economic environment if we can give anyone a leg up it’ll help.”
The Link has also put together a newcomer’s guide for those who recently moved to Lowndes County.
“It comes on a disc,” explained Link Chamber VP Macaulay Whitaker. “You put it in your computer and about 10 buttons pop up on the left side of the screen. If you click health care, a screen opens up with all of the health care resources in Lowndes County. Same thing for education, for pets, for anything that you can think of that you’d need to know to locate to Lowndes County.”
“You have no idea how many times we get calls from people wanting to know how to get a car tag,” Higgins said. “What’s the law, where do I go, those kind of things. She can do links to all those things.
“Another thing that we do that nobody thinks about it leadership,” Higgins said. “We do adult leadership, we do youth leadership. The programs are about nine months long. At some point in time none of us are going to be here. We want to develop strength for our community that will help us grow and prosper.”
The Link works closely with Columbus Air Force Base, he said.
“I had the opportunity to go to the Mississippi Military Council meeting in Jackson, where every community who has a base is represented,” Higgins said. “There is not a [Base Realignment and Closure] now, but if you watch the news there is not enough money to go around and the military is going to get some cuts. We work on a lot of things, but I think in the next two or three years we’re really going to have to ratchet up our awareness of what’s going on with those cuts. The next round is going to be different than in years past. In the past as long as you weren’t the slowest training base you were all right. My takeaway is that everybody is competing against everybody for resources. CAFB is going to need more attention than it has gotten in the past.
“At the end of the day I think CAFB is probably responsible for the greatest number of visitors and out of town expenditures than anything else we do,” he said. “We get 25-30 students per class, and there’s a new class every three weeks. They tell us that on average about 10 family members come to graduation. Those families are here three days or so. I don’t know we have anything else that does for us what that does for us.”
Higgins summarized the Link’s impact to date.
“We’re returned about a half billion dollars a year and about 500 direct jobs a year for the past nine years,” he said. “Most of the jobs that we’ve created are significantly higher pay than the average. We were probably around our heyday right after Severstal came. Then we had an awful dip where sales tax dipped $600,000 in one year. We’ve been climbing out of that hole ever since. If the numbers hold for the rest of the year, we’ll be about back to that same number we had three or four years ago.”
“One of the things I hear is that with the industries that come here is that they hire people from outside the area to come in and work,” said Nadia Dale. “Is that true?”
“I think it is correct,” Higgins said. “When Severstal came in, [John Correnti] got his old team back together. They had all worked for him at other mills. He probably brought in about 50 people on that core team that had steel-making backgrounds. After that it was pretty much potluck to get the jobs. Some from Lowndes, Clay and Oktibbeha got jobs, and there were a few from Lamar and Pickens. What we know out there, and we’re not going to single any one manufacturer out, is that 50 percent of the people who work there come from Lowndes County. About 20 percent come from Oktibbeha, about 10 come from Clay and the rest is ‘other’, which is mostly Noxubee, Lamar and Pickens.”
“What percent of your funding comes from the CVB?” asked Whirrlie Byrd.
“About 20 percent of our overall budget,” Higgins said.
During last month’s meeting, board members were debating funding levels for area festivals. During that argument, Byrd advised Rissa Lawrence to go back and “read the legislation”, arguing that the legislation that enabled the CVB specifically said the board had to fund festivals.
Monday afternoon Lawrence pointed out to Byrd that the legislation makes no mention of festivals whatsoever.
“During the discussion at the last meeting [Bernard Buckhalter and Byrd] both said that the legislation says we must fund festivals,” Lawrence said. “She suggested that I re-read it. I did. The word “festival” is not used in the legislation anywhere. It says we have ‘powers to exercise authority on matters related to establishing and promoting tourism, conventions, special events and recreation within the City of Columbus and Lowndes County.’ I also talked to Sen. Terry Brown, and he said we don’t even have to fund festivals. That’s just one way the previous boards had chosen to promote tourism. We can promote tourism however we want to. I asked him about the phrase special events, and he said it was up to us to determine what constituted special events. The word festivals…did you re-read it, Whirrlie?” “No, I didn’t re-read it, I suggested you re-read it,” Byrd said. “If you start breaking it down like that, we don’t have to fund the Link. But we do. We are here for tourism, and festivals bring in tourism.”
“You insisted that we have to fund festivals, and that’s not true,” Lawrence said.
“You’re taking it to another level,” Byrd said. “We are here to bring in tourism. We fund festivals and events. How else do you do it?”
“I think it’s a wonderful thing, but it does not say ‘festivals’ in the legislation,” Lawrence said.
“They don’t have to spell out F-E-S-T-I-V-A-L,” Byrd retorted. “We know what brings in tourism.”
“I wanted it noted in the current minutes what we exercise power over,” Lawrence said. “The work ‘festival’ is not in the legislation.”
“I knew the word ‘festival’ wasn’t in there,” Buckhalter said. “The point was that we can fund them. That was my basic point.”
“I went back and listened to the tape, and [Byrd] said the legislation says we must fund festivals,” Lawrence said.
“I appreciate you paying attention to what I said— ” Byrd began, but President George Swales cut her off.
“I think the point’s been made, so let’s move on,” he said.
Buckhalter then complained that the minutes, as written, were misleading.
“On these votes for funding different festivals, it’s not in the minutes that I suggested we fund them at a different level,” he said. [At last month’s meeting, the CVB voted on funding levels for the Artesia Day, Crawford Cotton Boll Festival, Southside Blues Festival and the Tennessee Williams Tribute. Mr. Buckhalter voted ‘no’ on all motions. – Brian Jones] “I suggested we fund them at different amounts. People in the years ahead will look back and say I voted against all the festivals. I voted against the amount. The minutes make it seem like I voted plain ‘no’, and that’s not the case.”
Executive Director Nancy Carpenter explained why the minutes were written the way they were.
“We did as was suggested by the attorney,” she said. “There was too much conversation. You could have a page of conversation on one motion, and that’s not what he wanted us to have. He wanted us to have the yay, the nay and what the vote was.”
“The attorney don’t determine what goes in the minutes,” Buckhalter said.
“We had one set of minutes that was 17 pages,” Carpenter said. “We’re not going to do that anymore.”
“You can’t tell me how many pages we have in our minutes,” Buckhalter said.
“The minutes should reflect the decision of the board,” Swales said.
“That’s what I’m saying,” Buckhalter said. “The attorney does not determine what goes in our minutes.”
“The minutes show you made a motion and supported the town of Crawford’s request,” said Mark Castleberry.
“Was there a motion made?” asked Bart Wise.
“It was just discussion,” Buckhalter said. “We need to be consistent in what we do, and we’re not being consistent in how we’re doing it.” [Mr. Buckhalter is referring to the fact that this is the first set of minutes prepared with the help of the board attorney. – Brian Jones]
The argument continued, ranging further afield; the board eventually worked around to their recurring debate over whether the attorney should be present at meetings or not. Buckhalter and Dale renewed their arguments that he should be; Swales argued that the CVB was saving money by not having the lawyer sit through meetings. Carpenter stated that the advertisement for legal services did not require the attorney to be present every month. No action was taken, and the board eventually moved on.
[I’ve said it before in this space, and I’ll say it again: If ever there was a board that needed the guidance of an attorney, it’s this one. – Brian Jones]
On a 4-4 vote, the CVB decided against funding the Legends Concert.
Last month members of the Legends Concert committee asked the CVB for $22,000 to have a “scaled-back” event. Legends is ineligible for festival grant funding because it is a one-day event, and Carpenter said at the time that the special projects fund only had $54.26 left.
Carpenter opened the discussion Monday afternoon by reiterating that the special projects cupboard was bare.
“It really doesn’t fit in either our local grant funding or our special projects,” Carpenter said. “Special projects is really intended for recreation. There is $54.26 left in that fund, as I mentioned last month.”
Buckhalter and Byrd insisted that the Legends Concert was founded by the CVB, and the CVB should continue to back it.
“I wasn’t on this board at the time, but it is my understanding that Legends is the baby of the CVB,” Buckhalter said. “The CVB started the concert, am I correct?”
“I thought about that,” Byrd said. “The CVB along with the Sam Hairston celebration, started the Legends concert. It’s our baby, it’s our brainchild. We enlisted help from various people – parks and recreation, others – because we needed help. Different people volunteered to help the CVB put it on, because we didn’t have the staff to do it. In conjunction with the Sam Hairston celebration, the board decided on the concert. We financed it. We should remember that. The intent was for the Legends concert to be a yearly event along the same line as the Clarksdale…maybe not as big, it has to start somewhere, but we wanted this to be a musical mecca. At that time the people on the committee who had worked on it to get it done were going to work on it to take it forward and we would just assist in whatever way possible. But the concert is a CVB brainchild, period.”
“How much money was spent on it that first time?” Lawrence asked.
“It was funded $25,000,” Carpenter said. “But the whole event was closer to $60,000 or $70,000.”
“If it was Pilgrimage, you would have brought in certain monies and grants and whatever, and we would help, but we would not finance the whole thing,” Byrd said. “Right now we probably finance the whole thing—”
“The Pilgrimage pretty much funds itself,” Carpenter said. “We funded $37,500 to Pilgrimage, and it took in around $41,000. We discussed it back in April.”
“I’m surprised that we’re going to cut the strings on it,” Buckhalter said. “I was not on the board at that time—”
“Well, I was—” Swales began.
“May I finish?” Buckhalter said. “This is the third year, we have not given them the opportunity to get out of the ground. Why start something and then cut it off?” “My recollection of this event does not exactly match with Ms. Byrd,” Swales said. “There was never any intent that we would fund it ad infinitum. The initiative was to have that one year concert, the Hairston event, and that that event would grow and sustain itself.” Byrd began trying to talk over Swales, but he continued. “If this project was so popular, where are all the promoters? Where is the industry to support it?”
“We started it with the intent that it be an annual event,” Byrd interjected.
“I don’t agree,” Swales said.
“Well, you don’t remember,” Byrd said. “Let me ask Steve Rogers. Did you approach you to help? Do you remember that it was our event?”
“Correct,” Steve Rogers said.
“It was our event,” Byrd said. “It was a CVB event. Do you remember if it was going to be an annual event?” “That was our understanding,” Rogers said. “What the board intended in their own minds I can’t speak to. But that was our understanding. I would like to clarify one point. The initial funding for the first concert was $13,678. I know exactly what you funded and exactly what you took in. You gave us $25,000 to start. You actually ended up spending $13,678.”
“That’s not what I remember,” Swales said.
“I make a motion we fund it,” Buckhalter said. “It’s a baby of the CVB, I don’t think we should abandon it.”
Byrd seconded his motion.
Myrick asked if more money could be found in the budget to fund the event. [Mr. Myrick recused himself last month from any Legends-related discussion because he served on the Legends committee. This month he announced that he was no longer on that committee, and so felt free to participate. – Brian Jones]
“This is a tough decision to make,” Myrick said. “Our grant fund was lacking money, and we went as a board and found money for it. If there’s no money there this year…we found it for festivals, can we consider finding it for a special event?”
“How long do we go on funding something that’s not profitable?” Lawrence asked. “When do you say this is enough?” “Look at the Pilgrimage as an example,” Dale said. “The Pilgrimage has been going on for 72 years, so I’m quite sure at this point that it shouldn’t need money. The city tax collections are up, so there is money that can be found.”
“Where does it fall?” asked Wise. “It doesn’t qualify for a grant because it’s a one-day event. All of our special projects have been recreation events. I’m not sure where this falls.”
“Where has it fallen for the past two years?” Dale asked.
“I think we can find the money to put into special projects,” Buckhalter said.
“I don’t think we should start funding things that are one-day events out of the grant fund,” Carpenter said. “Somebody else will come along next year and ask us to do the same thing.”
“I know what you’re saying,” Buckhalter said. “But we can find some money and put it in the budget.”
Roger Short attempted to comment, but Wise objected that Short was not on the agenda and should not be allowed to speak. Wise made a motion to bar Short from speaking and was seconded by Castleberry. Before a vote could be called, Buckhalter offered a substitute motion, seconded by Byrd, to allow him to speak. Buckhalter’s motion carried 5-3, with Wise, Castleberry and Swales voting no.
“I’d just like to point out that [Carpenter] told us to request this as a special event,” Short said. “That’s the only comment I have.”
“It would have to be out of special projects,” Carpenter said. “We’ve also said we’re going to fund projects at a maximum amount of $15,000. We’re talking about $23,000. I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around this. We’re not expecting to get anything back from this.”
“Just like you’re not from anyone else,” Rogers retorted.
“That’s not true, we just discussed we break even with the Pilgrimage,” Carpenter said. “I’m really trying to stick to a budget. We work hard every day to make sure we see where the money is going, and to turn around and just come up with $23,000…I will do whatever the board votes on.”
“I say we vote to fund it and then look for the money,” Buckhalter said.
“I think we should fund it at zero,” Castleberry said.
“You’re missing the point,” Buckhalter retorted. “There’s a motion on the floor.”
“Mr. Chairman, I’m going to make this easy for everyone,” Rogers said, breaking in on the discussion. “Without the full support of the CVB, we’re not going to do this. We withdraw our request. We’ll make that easier.”
The board, however, wasn’t about to let the withdrawal of the request stop a good argument.
“There is a motion on the floor,” Buckhalter insisted. “I think this is a sad day for the CVB.”
“They are selling tickets for $10,” Castleberry said. “We are subsidizing every single ticket by $27.50. I understand we subsidize everything, but we represent the people of Lowndes County. Do you think the people of Lowndes County think we should pay people $27.50 apiece to go to that event? If so, please vote that way.”
“That’s your opinion,” Buckhalter said.
“Those are the facts,” Castleberry said.
“That’s your opinion,” Buckhalter repeated. “That’s your opinion.”
“That’s math,” Castleberry said.
The vote failed 4-4. Myrick, Byrd, Dale and Buckhalter voted yes, and Swales, Lawrence, Wise and Castleberry voted no. DeWitt Hicks was not present.
Byrd asked that the board discuss Carpenter’s use of a CVB vehicle.
“I have a contract that I’m to abide by, and in the contract, under compensation, it says the CEO shall be provided with a car,” Carpenter said. “In February 2011 the board voted for me to act—”
“This is [former Executive Director James Tsismanakis’s] contract,” Byrd interrupted.
“May I finish?” Carpenter asked. “The board unanimously voted for me to act under his contract. I did speak with the attorney about this. The minute he starts working on the contract we get charged, and I asked him to wait until the board retreat.”
“This is why we need an attorney here,” Byrd said.
“I was told to act under that old contract,” Carpenter said.
“If he is working on the director’s contract, the board should’ve told him to do it,” Buckhalter said.
“I did,” Swales said.
“You are one person!” Buckhalter shouted. “You are not the board. When we hired Nancy in July or August at the retreat, we did not change her salary or any of that. That is a contract matter, and the board needs to discuss that, not one individual.”
[Buckhalter continued to shout, and several people tried to talk all at once. I haven’t the foggiest idea what was said as it was all but impossible to pick one voice out of the hubbub. – Brian Jones]
“I asked Nancy to give that contract to the attorney,” Swales said, once some order was restored. Buckhalter again began shouting, and he and Swales talked over each other. “I directed the executive director to give that contract to the attorney for him to work with so he could present us with a frame of a new contract. He’s got to work on something, and we’ve already instructed her to work on the basis of a contract that already existed. That is all that has happened. We can discuss it when it comes before us.”
“It should have been something the board did,” Buckhalter said.
“It takes board action, not one person,” Byrd said. “You [Swales] are not the board.”
“We can make the changes when we get it back from the attorney,” Wise said. “We can make any changes or recommendations, and then we will vote on the new contract.”
“I know that—” Buckhalter said.
“That’s not what you’re saying,” Wise said.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Buckhalter shot back. “I would like to have seen it before you sent it to the attorney.”
“The minutes of February 17, 2011, say that I was hired under the previous director’s contract,” Carpenter said.
“The contract doesn’t talk about the vehicle,” Byrd said.
“I make a motion that we table this until our board retreat,” Lawrence said.
“No,” Byrd said. “No. I make a motion that we restrict the vehicle use to CVB personnel and be used for official business only.”
Her motion was seconded by Dale.
[This is a wonderful example of why the board needs an attorney present at its meetings. It is my understanding that a motion to table takes precedence and cuts off debate. In other words, Ms. Byrd’s motion was improper. – Brian Jones]
The board briefly argued about whether or not Byrd made a motion at the beginning of the debate. Byrd insisted she did. In the end, Swales recognized her motion. [I did not hear her make a motion until now, neither when I was at the meeting nor when listening to my tape later. – Brian Jones]
“I think our executive director should follow the same rules as the mayor, the school superintendent and other officials who drive public vehicles,” Wise said. “They should follow the same rules.”
“The county parked their vehicles,” Byrd said.
“What about the mayor or the city and county superintendents?” Wise asked.
“I’m talking about the Convention and Visitors Bureau,” Byrd said. “We need to mind our own business here. I don’t think it’s fair that any person should drive around on a tank of gas paid for by my money.” “I don’t have a dog in this fight,” Dale said, “but I have a question about the insurance. That’s why I think it should be restricted to CVB personnel.”
“I remember the meeting when we put her under Tsismanakis’s contract,” Castleberry said. “Right now, if we vote to change her employment contract—”
“This is not her contract,” Byrd said, talking over Castleberry. Immediately many people began talking at once, drowning each other out.
“Please, I’d like to finish something without you interrupting me,” Castleberry said, once he could make himself heard. “We are in some very dangerous territory. We definitely need an attorney to weigh in on this and not make a decision based on memory and interpretation.”
“On the insurance policy, I looked previously and James Tsismanakis’s wife was on the policy,” Carpenter said. “There are times when that person has to drive. My husband does not, on a regular basis, drive that car. Does he sometimes? Yes. There are times when I ride to Jackson, and there are times when there is a straight shot and he has driven and I have worked. If I am leaving here and I have to go to the grocery store, have I driven the car? Yes. Do I take major trips in that car? No. Did I drive it to Columbus Air Force Base or to Juneteenth? Yes. I do not use this car to go visit my children, I want you to understand that.”
“I don’t have a problem with that,” Dale said. “My concern is that the person driving be on the insurance.”
“I am very careful with that,” Carpenter said. “There are things that I am afforded in this contract that I have not done and I will not do. I’m doing two jobs right now for less than what the previous director was paid.”
Byrd’s motion was voted down 5-3, with Dale, Buckhalter and Byrd voting yes.