The Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau grant committee held a heavily attended meeting February 12 to hear public comment on their current grant guidelines. The meeting, considering the tempestuous subject matter, was surprisingly free from tension, but no decision was reached.
The majority of the meeting was given over to public comment. The first person to speak was Chuck Cook, representing Grillin’ on the River.[At their February meeting the CVB declined to fund Grillin’ on the River over concerns regarding Harvey Myrick’s participation. – BJ]
“We only ask for about 26 percent of what our annual budget really is,” Cook said. “Some organizations ask for 100 percent, but we are able to function on 26 percent. After working so hard with the guidelines for 2013, we are wondering why they were abandoned. Is it the intention of the committee not to fund the festivals for the rest of the 2013 fiscal year? Will this committee recommend to the board that they rescind the monies already given out in 2013? In the middle of the water we’ve changed our mind. If the committee intends to recommend grants for the future festivals, what is the basis for future recommendations?
“That our event be singled out and denied funding, especially after a member of the organization has tried to distance himself…we even went to the state and got recommendations from them that found that our member did not conflict in any way as long as he did not receive any funds,” Cook said. “Everybody in this room is connected to an event in some way or another. Our books are open. There is not any extra money, there is no way to pocket it, it takes every dime you get to fund these things.
“I thought the reason for this funding was to bring people into Columbus, not just circulate money within ourselves,” he said. “Grillin’ on the River has done just that. All you’ve got to do is drive through the parking lot. These car tags come from everywhere in the country. The money is coming into the community, and we’re proud of that. We’re not circulating our money from one hand to another within the city, and our numbers are not exploded. We don’t tell you we’re doing 20 and 30 and 40,000 people when in reality there’s not an event in this town that pulls more than three to 6,000 people. But that’s good, those are good numbers. Anybody who says they’re getting 10, 20, 30,000 people, they’re just blowing smoke.”
Next up was District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks on behalf of his Afro-American Cultural Organization. Brooks promised that he would never come before the CVB again.
“When I was a kid, my dad and I used to go hunting,” Brooks said. “Some days we were successful and some days we were not. There were some days where he said, ‘We’ve just beat this path enough.’ I’m at that point now. I think that, me personally, I have beat this path enough. One thing I do want to say is that I disagree with Mr. Cook. There are some activities that bring in more than three to 6,000 people. There are a number of activities. For some strange reason, I’ve become the poster boy of this festival debate. [Mr. Brooks’s preceding statement is so stunningly disingenuous that I don’t even know how to respond. – BJ] [Executive Director Nancy Carpenter] handed out this packet of information that is required by the state of Mississippi of everybody. I can stand here unequivocally and say that the Afro-American Cultural Organization has all of their paperwork in order. [Packet readers will remember that Mr. Brooks’s organization’s habit of writing checks out to ‘cash’ and the mysterious way in which profits are handled were one of the major sticking points in funding Juneteenth. – BJ] As a matter of fact, even when we turn in our grant information, our grant information is fine. There may be a problem with addition…but we follow the guidelines that have been established.
“I hate that we’re here tonight,” Brooks said. “In the 1980s I was on the Columbus Arts Council. They brought in a consultant to do a study about the needs of this community. At that particular time he said that the main event in this town was the Pilgrimage. They were not critical of it because it’s a great activity, but they did say that there needed to be more diversity. That was the early 80s. Over the years a lot of things have evolved. We’ve got Grillin’ on the River, we’ve got MLK, and Southside and Juneteenth. We’ve come full circle because people have worked hard, they’ve worked diligently, sometimes without money. When we started Juneteenth all we had was a flatbed. We’ve worked hard. These festivals represent a constituent-based activity. Now we are at a point where we’ve got money coming in and we can have Market Street and all this other stuff that bring people in from all over the country, and here we are trying to destroy the goose that lays the golden egg. There is enough money for everybody. When some of these bills you have are paid off, each year there is going to be more money. There is no reason that you can’t fund these activities at a level that we can do them. Every group in here has to go out and raise money. You all gave out $52,000 last year to, for lack of a better term, the black festivals. It cost almost $100,000. We had to go out and raise another $48,000.
“At one time, [Carpenter] had to stand where I’m standing and ask for money,” Brooks said. “I ask you to remember the things that you had to go through when you came and asked for money. We’ve got money. We’ve got $1.6 million now, tomorrow it’ll be more than that. We’ve got hotels going on line, we’ve got restaurants. It’s not about money. We ought to be about trying to facilitate growth in this community so that all people are served. I don’t go on the Pilgrimage, but one of my friend’s homes is on the Pilgrimage, and we share a great relationship. Not too many African-Americans go to Pilgrimage, but we don’t fight it. We all attend Market Street, there are events that we all participate in. Let us not separate…I do not go to Tennessee Williams. I read his books, I’m not interested in the activity but it’s part of the community. We should not have to choose between one or the other when there’s enough money in the pot.
“We have submitted to you some concerns about elected officials, and we’ve agreed that we won’t come,” Brooks said. “I think that we’ve agreed on some guidelines that are workable. I promise you that it is not my intention to ever come before this CVB board for anything. I would hope that you all will do the right thing. Let’s not create a situation on this board that other board members will have to straighten out down the road. Some day you’ll have to go back to the legislature and get this re-established. It’s a lot easier to get re-established if everybody is on board. If you’ve got a group over here that’s mad at a group over there, then we could very well kill that goose. I think if there’s anything the CVB should want at this point, it’s to get off the front page of the paper. I do not plan on coming back and asking you for another dime. If there is never another Juneteenth in Columbus, I will let the people know that it’s not because I didn’t try, but because people sought to kill it.”[I think what Mr. Brooks said about it being difficult to get the tourism tax reapproved in the legislature is exactly on point. I ran into Rep. Gary Chism earlier this week, and we chatted about the CVB. He made it a point to tell me that many of the legislators from our area are sick and tired of the CVB circus and are ready to either kill the tax outright or force it to a public referendum.
As far as Mr. Brooks’s arguments about festival funding, I am loathe to repeat my usual rejoinders as I am beginning to bore even myself. So let’s just take my usual “accountability is not unreasonable” and “why are we giving politicians money for de facto campaign events” remarks as read, shall we? –BJ]
“Are you saying your organization will not come before this board for funding in 2014?” asked Nadia Dale.
“If we’ve got to go through all of this…at one time we had other representatives to come,” Brooks said. “People would come to this board and get jumped on. I didn’t think it was fair they came and were antagonized, so I decided to come. If you’re not going to change the guidelines…our festivals, meaning Crawford and Artesia and Townsend and Southside, are entertainment oriented. We need money for entertainment, and if you’re going to make it difficult for us to get money like it is now…you gave Juneteenth $15,000 and we can only use $3,700 for entertainment…entertainment cost me $15,000. There’s no reason to come and take money that’s going to strangle me. If the guidelines that you’ve got now are in place, there’s no reason to come back.”
“This board does not have the intention to shut down the festivals, but to find a way where we’re not tapping out our budget,” Dale said. “My understanding is that the money is meant to be seed money for festivals that are trying to get established. Is there a plan that you have in place to continue? For me it is about the entire community.”
“We got money from the Mississippi Arts Commission for years,” Brooks said. “One of the things they had was a developing category for organizations that were just coming on the scene. One thing you may want to look at is setting aside money for developing organizations and another for organizations that have a track record. It’s not about the money, it’s about having the will to make it work. I think if you look at the categories and these organizations that have been around for a while, we will continue to raise money and continue to do bigger and better festivals.” [I think this is a pretty good idea, especially if the higher-tier “experienced” festivals are given progressively less and less money as they grow. – BJ]
Mike Fittes spoke on behalf of Memphis Invitational BBQ Tournament.
“We are new at this as far as approaching the CVB for funding,” he said. “I am on the Roast n Boast organizing committee and have been for 21 years. You listen to Leroy, you listen to Chuck, there is a lot of hard work that goes into these events to bring people to Columbus. Our particular contest in August, we have never received funding for the CVB. We do it on our own. Due to the proximity of Columbus and due to the facility that we have here, we were approached by the Memphis BBQ Network about hosting this event. There is no monetary gain for us who are working to get it down, but there is gain for the city of Columbus and Lowndes County.
“We are willing to do whatever you want us to do to give you all the necessary receipts and paperwork and different things,” he said. “But you need to look at…they wanted to come here. They have invited 110 teams and 55 are confirmed. That’s bigger than Grillin’ on the River, it’s bigger than Roast n Boast. That’s twice as big. They are willing to actually sign a contract with us for a minimum of three years. A BBQ team is at least three or four people, some are as big as 10. If they have 50 teams, they will bring 100 judges. Every single one of those people is from out of town. We’ve got 125 hotel rooms blocked off with the anticipation of using all of them if not more. They want to come here because they have experienced our BBQ contest in the past. We hope we will be able to bring these people back to Columbus for our contest and for Grillin’ on the River.
“We don’t have any real issue with the guidelines as far as the funding,” he said. “One thing you may want to consider…you talk about a maximum of 25 percent to be used for entertainment. When you bring an event…look at Market Street. Entertainment is what brings a lot of people in to the festival. When you limit entertainment you limit how many people are going to come in.”
Community activist Berry Hinds spoke briefly.
“We’ve got a lot of people who have worked hard to develop things for the community over the years,” he said. “The board has modified the guidelines as far as who can apply and what can apply. In trying to look at not having the appearance of impropriety with elected officials…if you use the same the criteria that you use for Grillin’ on the River there are several other festivals that you would have to defund. If you look at the paperwork that’s been filed with the state, the people who are on the paperwork are the very people who have the appearance of impropriety.”
District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith was the final organizer to speak.
“We’ve gotten away from the good will,” Smith said. “We sit on these boards and we forget that there is a body of people out there that we are all responsible to. We steer away from those things that are most important. My purpose is to serve. I am like Mr. Brooks. I will not be back to this committee under no circumstances, but I do believe that the festivals are beneficial to the community. People come from out of the state and out of the region and participate in these festivals every year. It reflects the diversity of our community. We reach out beyond racial lines and do a lot of things that other communities don’t do.
“Until this year I thought everyone was satisfied with the direction these festivals were going,” Smith said. “Somewhere along the line we started going in a different direction. New people were seated on the board and new guidelines were created. All of sudden the festivals were wrong. I have asked for a committee to be founded to move the Southside Festival, and I have removed myself from being a participant on that committee other than as a volunteer.
“I think there is a misgiving that the money that’s received here is all the money that’s received by these festivals,” Smith said. “That’s not true. We work hard. When we have the issues that we’ve had for the last several months in this board room, it takes away from the opportunity to have a successful festival. In terms of funding these festivals, what’s gone on in the last several months makes it seem that we can’t afford not to be dependent on you. People want to be part of doing the right thing, and they’re afraid to be a participant because they don’t know whether it’s right or wrong.
“Somewhere along the way we have gotten off track, bad off track,” Smith said. “I want to be a part of solving the problem, not a part of the problem. I want to be a part of the solution. We made the first move to remove ourselves. That has been a contentious issue, and we have made the first steps to take care of that.”
After Smith’s remarks, the committee debated next steps. Many of the board members seemed unwilling to make a decision that night. Harvey Myrick made a motion to adjourn the meeting so that the committee members would have time to digest what they’ve heard, but his motion died for lack of a second.
The committee then chased its tail for several minutes, before Myrick made a second motion, this time to table the matter until a later date. After it became clear that the committee members wanted to meet again, he withdrew his motion.
The committee eventually decided to meet again on February 20 at 9 a.m. to discuss what they had heard and make a recommendation to the full board.0