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CVB Grant Committee Considers Removing Entertainment Cap / Board Hires New Attorney, About-faces and Funds Grillin’ on the River

The Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau met February 25 in a meeting that was short, civil and largely free from controversy.  Three of the five members of the grant committee also met earlier that afternoon to discuss changes to festival funding guidelines, but no action was taken.

Grant committee meeting
Grant committee members Bernard Buckhalter, Nadia Dale and Harvey Myrick met an hour before the meeting of the full board to discuss overhauling the CVB festival funding mechanism in light of comments received at a February 12 special meeting.  Committee chair Mark Castleberry was out of town, and member Rissa Lawrence did not attend due to poor health.  [Both Castleberry and Lawrence attended the board meeting later that afternoon, in Castleberry’s case via Skype. – Brian Jones] “Several of the comments that came out of the previous meeting are things I think we should consider, but how would that impact what has already been funded,” Dale said.  “For example if we decide to recommend the board approve an amendment to move quality of life from $8,000 to $12,000, would that affect the festivals we’ve already funded?”
[Under the current guidelines, a quality of life event may receive up to $8,000 in funding, with no requirements on how the money is spent.  A tourism event may receive up to $15,000, but at least 25 percent must be spent on advertising and no more than 25 percent may be spent on entertainment.  It seems to be the entertainment cap more than anything that sticks in many organizers’ craws. – Brian Jones] “The only thing that’s actually been funded is [Dream 365],” Buckhalter said.  “Some grants have been awarded, but not actually funded.  If we decide we want to up the amount, I say we go back and change what we gave them if we want to do that.”
“First of all, I want to talk about what somebody from the community [Berry Hinds] said,” Buckhalter said.  “He asked why the CVB should tell festivals how to spend money outside of advertising.  I thought that was a very good suggestion, especially coming from someone who’s not an organizer.”
“I thought it was, too,” Dale said.  “Why do we care how they spend money beyond advertising?  We ask for a full account of how funding was spent with the clearance reports…”
“I don’t think we need to know, actually,” Buckhalter said.
“I don’t feel like I need to know how anything’s spent other than what I’m responsible for answering for,” Dale said.  “I think there’s two separate questions we want to ask.  If we give someone $15,000, do we want to maintain the cap of 25 percent on advertising and do we want to ask where the rest of it was spent.”
“I want to know how you spent it, but I’m not going to tell you how to spend it,” Buckhalter said.  “As long as they use the 25 percent for advertising, I think they can spend the rest on whatever they want to spend it on.  As long as it’s legal, I think they can spend it on whatever they want to spend it on.”
“You were on the committee previously, prior to [Dale], and you know we spent months on these particular guidelines,” Myrick said.  “The quality of life festivals can get up to $8,000 and they can spend that money however they want to.  The tourism, in my mind, the reason it was set up that way is because we wanted tourism people to bring people from outside the area to come.  I can remember there was some discussion about the requirement to bring people in from more than 100 miles.  Hopefully if someone comes from more than 100 miles, they will stay at our hotels.  We know they will eat at our restaurants.”
“I’m looking at the requirements for the tourism grant, and they are required to spend a minimum of 25 percent on advertising and no more than 25 percent on entertainment,” Dale said.  “That pushes organizers to find some way to spend that other 50 percent.  I think…if I am someone considering coming to an event from out of town, there needs to be somebody big enough for me to see.  There has to be some good entertainment.  To be more competitive they need to get the big entertainment.”
“I think we need to remove that 25 maximum,” Buckhalter said.
“I think the 25 percent minimum should be the case for advertisement,” Dale said.  “But outside that if they want to spend the rest of that trying to court quality entertainment…it seems like right now you’re just saying find a way to spend the other 50 percent of the money.”
“You may be right that the percentages need to be looked at for next year,” Myrick said.  “These guidelines…we worked several months on trying to get them.  When you’re sitting at a table like we are today, you can’t make the perfect guidelines.  We came up with what we thought…other than the amounts the four of us were united to recommend these guidelines.”
“I made a point of pointing out the amount, because I totally disagree with that,” Buckhalter said.  “But there were some other things that I didn’t agree with.”
“The whole board has voted on these guidelines,” Myrick said.  “The issue now is can we change midstream.”
“We can recommend an amendment to the guidelines if we all agree on that,” Buckhalter said.  “I’d like to see the amount for quality of life moved up to $12,000.”
“I agree with [Myrick] in saying that I don’t feel comfortable putting in this work and then changing midstream,” Dale said.  “I get that.”
“I don’t mind,” Buckhalter said.  “When you draft something that’s going to affect so many people, you’re going to have to tweak it.  It’s never going to be perfect the first time around.  You’re going to have to tweak it until you get it right.  It’s trial and error.”
“The thing is we put this one in motion,” Dale said.  “We’re in the trial right now.  We got some feedback from the community for what isn’t working.  I just don’t think we’re ready to make a hard recommendation to be voted up or down right now because I can see it backfiring on us.  We can make a very sound recommendation, but because it’s premature it gets voted down and the opportunity may be lost.  What I’m saying is there any priority amendment that we can make to the board today while we work on these other, smaller details?”    “I think that one thing that came out of that meeting is that we should have had that meeting prior to drafting those guidelines,” Buckhalter said.  “Now that we’ve gotten a lot of input…I don’t have a problem going out there and making a motion today.  That’s what it’s all about, is trial and error.  We tried it.  The organizers say they can’t work with it like that.  We can’t make everybody happy, but we need to do the best we can.”
“I don’t see anything changing with amounts,” Myrick said.  “Where it can be spent…I fully agree from the input of the organizers and the public that it needs to be looked at.  It’s a hard question.  As far as money, let some of these festivals use some of their sponsor money towards entertainment.  Use the CVB money to try to draw people.  Let’s let one year of festivals go and then evaluate how they did based on these guidelines.  If they didn’t do well…some of them already feel like they’re not going to do well, based on these comments, but if they hadn’t tried it yet…they may do great.  They may get a thousand more people come to their event because they used money further off.  I understand what [Buckhalter] is saying, but this is the other side of the story.”
“But quality of life festivals don’t have to spend a dime on advertising,” Buckhalter said.  “We don’t require them to do anything.  Raising the amount would guarantee better entertainment there.”
“I think the purpose of the two pots was for organizers to choose whether they wanted $8,000 with no restriction, or do you want almost twice as much but then have to follow guidelines,” Myrick said.  “The committee’s intent was for the festival to decide.  If entertainment is big to you, we’re handing you $8,000 to go get your entertainment.  Otherwise, you need to follow some guidelines.  I agree that these guidelines could be tweaked.  I personally don’t think they need to be tweaked midstream.”
“Shouldn’t we also require the quality of life to spend a minimum amount on advertising?” Dale asked.
“I still think we need to wait until the end of the fiscal year and see how the current guidelines work,” Myrick said.
“The only event that’s been held so far is Dream 365,” Dale said.  “The only real feedback I got from them was that the 25 percent cap on entertainment made things hard for them.”
“I think we should take the 25 percent cap off of tourism,” Buckhalter repeated.  “Require them to spend 25 percent on advertisement, but let them use the rest however they want to.”
“The only way I feel comfortable with that is if we put an advertising requirement on quality of life events,” Dale said.  “If we’re only concerned with advertising and how that affects bringing people in, it doesn’t make sense that we have a category where there is no requirement.”
“I think you have to look at the difference in the amount that they get,” Buckhalter said.
“If we move it up to $12,000 there will only be a $3,000 difference,” Dale said.
“Three thousand dollars is a lot of money,” Buckhalter said.
“Not to the organizers,” Dale said.
“We’ve got to end this soon,” Buckhalter said.  “I would like to recommend today – today- that we remove the entertainment cap and we move the quality of life amount up to $12,000.”
“I don’t see voting on this today,” Myrick said.  “There are only three of us here, and the full committee needs to be here before we take a vote.”    “I think it’s premature to do anything today,” Dale agreed.  “But I do think it’s a good idea to remove the entertainment cap.”
“We have prolonged and stretched it out, and prolonged and stretched it out,” Buckhalter said.  “That’s why I took it upon myself to schedule this today so we’d have something to say.  We look like we can’t make our minds up or make a decision.”
“I think we don’t need to be impulsive,” Dale said.
The committee took no action.  Another committee meeting was scheduled for March 11 at 5:30 p.m. at the CVB office.

The regular meeting
Immediately after the grant committee adjourned, the regular meeting of the full board began.

Treasurer Bart Wise reported that sales tax collections, which have been lagging, picked up slightly.
“Sales collections are ticking up a little bit, which is going to be a great help,” he said.  “We brought in $9,000 more than in the previous month.  Our budget this month came in above expenses by about $9,000.”

The board took up the hiring of a new attorney.  The board was formerly represented by Chris Latimer, who resigned abruptly last year.  Last month Executive Director Nancy Carpenter recommended that the board hire Columbus attorney Chris Hemphill.  Instead the board chose to advertise for the position.
This month Carpenter reported that there was exactly one applicant for the job: Hemphill.
“We ran both a display ad and an ad in the classifieds,” Carpenter said.  “The time period was up as of February 11.  We had one applicant, and that applicant was Chris Hemphill.”
Myrick made a motion to hire him on an as-needed basis at the rate of $200 an hour, and was seconded by Whirllie Byrd.
“At the executive board meeting – which has no authority, as you know – we discussed seeing if Mr. Hemphill would come to the monthly board meetings on a flat fee basis,” said President DeWitt Hicks.
“He said that he would do it on a trial basis,” Carpenter added.  “If he is paid $300 for a flat fee, and we consistently have four or five hour meetings then he would want to reconsider.”
“In that case I will withdraw my motion and move that we hire him to be at each of our meetings for the flat fee of $300,” Myrick said, “and on an hourly basis as needed.”
Byrd again seconded his motion, which passed unanimously.

Chuck Baker came to the board to ask that they reconsider their refusal to fund Grillin’ on the River.
At a November 27 meeting, the Grant Committee recommended $8,000 in funding for the festival, but, at the December regular meeting the board tabled the matter due to concerns over the involvement of CVB board member Harvey Myrick.  Myrick founded the festival and previously served on its executive committee, but has since resigned from that post.  Myrick also provided the board with an Ethics Commission opinion stating that there was no conflict of interest as long as he did not receive financial compensation himself, and as long as he recused himself from any votes pertaining to Grillin’ on the River.
The issue was taken off the table in January.  At that time Myrick said he had asked an unaffiliated non-profit, Lowndes Community Foundation, to handle all grant money the festival receives.  The board was unmoved and voted 5-3 not to fund, with Castleberry, Hicks and Lawrence in opposition.
Monday afternoon Baker asked the board to reconsider.
“We have met with our advisors and come to the determination that we are in compliance with everything the Secretary of State and the IRS require,” Baker said.  “You should have a copy of the updated information, which was filed several weeks ago but was returned to us due to a clerical error.  We would like to ask that you reconsider funding to Grillin’ on the River.”
Byrd made a motion, seconded by Dale, to award $8,000.
“I am satisfied that there is no conflict,” Byrd said.
“I continue to have reservations about [Myrick] sitting on this board,” Wise said, “and also us funding an event where he’s involved.  It’s no longer a board membership, but he is a volunteer.  I just think there needs to be separation.”
The board approved the funding 5-2, with Wise and Ellis voting no.  Myrick abstained.  Castleberry was not allowed to vote.
[Two comments here.  First, Mr. Myrick remained in the room and even attempted to vote during the Grillin’ on the River discussion.  In the past he has left the room entirely – in other words, properly recused himself – while any discussion of the event was going on.  Monday night he did not do so.
Mr. Hicks called for a vote twice because it was not clear who was voting which way the first time.  During that first vote, Mr. Myrick clearly raised his hand to vote in favor, leading Mike Laws, organizer of the upcoming Memphis BBQ Invitational, who was in the audience, to wonder aloud, “How can he vote on his own festival?”  Mr. Myrick did not attempt to vote the second time.  Personally, I don’t think he should have been in the room at all, and in no case should have been allowed to vote.
[Secondly, Mr. Castleberry, who was out of town, attended the meeting via Skype.  He voted throughout the first half of the meeting, but then about 4:30 Ms. Carpenter abruptly announced that she had received a text message that stated board members attending via Skype may only vote if five days’ notice that they planned to do so had been given.  No notice was given, and so all Mr. Castleberry’s previous votes were considered void. – Brian Jones] 0

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