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Juneteenth Wants Money After All

Cindy Lawrence

Cindy Lawrence

Proposal for One Day Festival Does Not Meet CVB Requirements
Request Tabled Until Next Month

The Juneteenth festival organizers appeared before the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau board Monday afternoon to ask that they be given $8,000 in quality of life funding, but their request was eventually tabled.  In other business, the board discussed its financial status and a recent grant committee meeting, as well as hearing a presentation about the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area.

Juneteenth, part one
In a move surprising to absolutely no one, the Juneteenth committee returned to the CVB to ask for money for this year’s festival.
[Here’s how we got to this point: In November Juneteenth submitted two requests for funding.  The first was as a tourism event, and asked for $15,000.  The second was as a quality of life event, and asked for $8,000.  The numbers in the applications – including proposed budgets – did not match one another.  Both budgets also projected a loss.
    On December 17 the board voted to give Juneteenth $15,000.  At that same meeting District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks, the major force behind Juneteenth, threw an epic temper tantrum and refused the money, calling people who questioned him and voted against funding the festival racists, among other things.
    At a February public forum, Mr. Brooks, in a much calmer appearance, raised some legitimate questions about the current festival guidelines and, again, reiterated that he didn’t want the CVB’s money.  “There’s no reason to take money that is going to strangle me,” he said.  “If the guidelines that you’ve got now are in place, there’s no reason to come back.”  To his credit, Mr. Brooks also vowed not to personally come before the CVB board again. – Brian Jones] Juneteenth Chairperson Cindy Lawrence appeared on behalf of the festival.  CVB Chairman DeWitt Hicks asked that Lawrence be allowed to speak at the very beginning of the meeting due to her responsibilities as Lowndes County’s emergency management director.  [A line of severe storms had just swept through the area. – Brian Jones] “I am here to request the $8,000 quality of life grant for the Juneteenth festival for this year,” Lawrence said.  “We have received numerous calls from the community about putting on the festival this year, and that’s why I am here.”
Lawrence asked that the board vote on funding today to allow the maximum amount of planning time.
“I asked our attorney about this,” Hicks said.  “Since this is a reconsideration as opposed to a new grant application, he concurred that we are not violating our policy if we decide to vote today.”  [Usually the CVB hears grant requests and then votes at the next month’s meeting. – Brian Jones] “It looks like you’re budgeted for a loss of about $8,000 or $9,000,” said Bart Wise.  “I’m kind of curious about that.  How are you going to make up that loss?”
“We’re going to downscale the festival,” Lawrence said.
“What part are you modifying?” Wise asked.
“We usually have activities on Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” Lawrence said.  “This year we are only having activities on Saturday.”
“To qualify for funding it has to be a two-day event,” Wise said.
Under questioning from Rissa Lawrence, Cindy Lawrence stated that the budget she submitted was the same one the CVB passed over last year.
“Mr. Brooks said he couldn’t put on the event for $15,000, and didn’t want to even be considered for the $8,000 because that wasn’t enough,” said Rissa Lawrence.  “What changed?”
“The committee met and we decided,” Cindy Lawrence said.
“What happened…did you bring a new application with a new budget?” Rissa Lawrence asked.
“No,” Cindy Lawrence said.  “It’s not a new budget.”
“They submitted a quality of life request and we didn’t consider it,” Bernard Buckhalter said.
Hicks, after asking that the board take the proposal up first thing, then about-faced and asked that the discussion be put off until later in the meeting.
“[Whirllie Byrd] called and said that she is going to be late,” he said.  “Let’s defer this back to where it was on the agenda and take it up at that time with the full board.”
The discussion was temporarily halted, and Cindy Lawrence left the meeting.

Wise reported that sales tax collection were up.
“Our revenue increased up to $123,000,” he said.  “It had been running around $113,000.  We had a nice jump there, but we don’t know if it’s one month or not.  Last year around this time we had a significant increase.  Hopefully this is a sign that the economy is improving.”

Grant committee report
At a March 11 meeting the grant committee voted 4-1 to leave festival funding guidelines unchanged for this fiscal year.  Mark Castleberry, who chairs the committee, announced the decision the full board and made a motion, seconded by Nadia Dale, that no action be taken.
The motion passed 7-2, with Buckhalter and Byrd, who had recently arrived, voting no.  After the motion Byrd attempted to ask questions.
“Do you have a written recommendation?” Byrd asked.
“We have no recommendation,” Castleberry said.  “We don’t think action needs to be taken.”
“We made a decision not to make changes, but there were some really good recommendations that community members brought out and we want to consider them later,” Dale said.  “Specifically we’re looking at increasing quality of life and removing the entertainment cap.”
“We’re discussing after the vote,” Buckhalter objected.  “We voted, and now we’re discussing.”

Juneteenth, part two
With Byrd present, the board returned to the issue of the most recent Juneteenth request.
Buckhalter immediately made a motion to give Juneteenth $8,000, and was seconded by Byrd.
“Our agenda says reconsideration of the existing grant,” Myrick said.  “We have him funding and he refused the money.  I have no objection to giving him the $8,000, but I think we’re breaking our policy or practice where in the past we have voted 30 days after a presentation.  I consider this a presentation.”
“The application was already in,” Buckhalter said.  “Juneteenth submitted both at the same time.  We only considered one application.  I don’t see a big problem.  I guess they figured they could use the $8,000 better than they could use the 25 percent of the $15,000.  Also we voted against Grillin’ on the River and then went back and gave them their money.  I don’t see a big difference.”
“Ms. Lawrence said they were cutting it back to a one-day event, which eliminates them from being considered,” Wise said. [To be considered for funding, festivals must be at least two-day events. – Brian Jones] “My other point is that I don’t know how we can fund something that is projecting a $9,000 loss.  If we’re going to consider this, they at least need to go back and rework their budget.”
“That was going to be my point,” Rissa Lawrence said.  “I was very concerned when she said they had not redone their budget.  If they cut it back to one day, as [Wise] said it cuts them out altogether.  For the committee to have met and not come up with a new budget…they are budgeting for a loss of $9,900.  I don’t understand how you can budget for an event and plan for a loss.”
“My concern is voting on the same day,” Castleberry said.  “They submitted two [applications].  From a practical standpoint I think it’s a bad practice to vote on the same day.”
“There has been so much wrangling in the past about the dollar amounts,” Byrd said.  “There are so many misconceptions about the grant process…the board dropped the ball as far as not bringing in the organizers on the discussion.  I think since it has been going on for years…the $15,000 is quashed, that’s no problem.  But the $8,000…it’s been going on for a long, long time.  It’s in the spirit of the community and the spirit of the board to give them the money.  It’s a one day event, and maybe we can haggle about that, but we should grant the request because it is for the community and we did reconsider Grillin’ on the River.”
“I fully agree with you,” Myrick said.  “I don’t have an issue with the $8,000, and I would probably vote for it.  But the application says it’s a three-day event, and she just told us it isn’t a three-day event.  She gave us a budget based on a three-day event.  I’m concerned with the paperwork not being proper.”
“So you move to table?” Hicks asked.
“I make a motion we—” Lawrence began, but Buckhalter cut her off, saying, “There’s a motion on the floor, there’s a motion on the floor.”
“I want to amend [Buckhalter’s] motion,” Dale said, adding to the confusion.  “I’d like to say we reconsider the application contingent on the Juneteenth committee giving us an amended budget that includes a two-day event.”
Byrd seconded Dale’s amended motion.
“The paperwork in our packet was for a three-day event,” Myrick said.  “Then all of a sudden it’s a one- or two-day event.  What position does that put us in?  This is November’s application.  The information in that application is obviously incorrect.”
“We need an updated application to vote without breaking our own policies,” Dale agreed.  “My amendment is that they come back an updated budget and application indicating what days they are requesting funding for.”
“I think the simplest thing to do is table it until the next meeting,” Hicks said.
“I think it’s going to require a whole new presentation,” Wise said.  “It’s completely different from the three-day event in the earlier application.  It’s a different festival than what we originally talked about.  The financials are so much different.”
“I don’t think it requires a new presentation,” Buckhalter said.  “You already know what it’s for.  Why do we need a new presentation?”
“How do we know what they’re planning for those two days?” Dale asked.
Myrick further muddied the waters by making a motion to table the issue.  As a motion to table is a priority motion, it was voted on immediately.  It failed on  5-4 vote, with Buckhalter, Castleberry, Leon Ellis, Lawrence and Bart Wise voting no.
The board then voted on Dale’s amended motion to require the Juneteenth organizers to extend the event and submit an updated budget.  That motion also failed, with only Buckhalter, Byrd and Dale voting yes.
Finally, Buckhalter’s original motion to award the $8,000 came up for a vote.
“I have a legal concern with you voting for something that does not meet your minimum qualifications,” said Board Attorney Chris Hemphill.
Byrd made an impassioned plea that Juneteenth be funded, invoking the event’s importance to African-Americans.
“On behalf of the African-American community, who looks forward to Juneteenth, I would really ask this board to grant the $8,000 to the community,” Byrd said.  “We should all be conscious of that.  It’s almost like a sponsorship.  We do give money on the spot sometimes.  There’s no doubt it should be a two-day event.  It’s not about Cindy Lawrence or Leroy Brooks, it’s about the community.  Most folks who participate in this festival will be from the African-American community.  Most folks on this board don’t give a hoot…let’s do this.  We can give $8,000 to Juneteenth.  Give it to the community.”
“I don’t think the Afro-American community or the white community or whatever you want to call it has anything to do with it,” Rissa Lawrence said.  “What is has to do with is that they said it was going to be a one-day event.  That knocks it out.  It must be a minimum of two days.”
The board members began talking over one another, and Dale cut through the hubbub with a second motion to table.
“I think we should table this to give us the opportunity to get more information, including the budget and whether it’s two or three days,” Dale said.
This time the motion passed 5-4, with Castleberry, Ellis, Lawrence and Wise voting no.
[It never ceases to amaze me how the CVB board can turn a simple matter into something so complicated.  Juneteenth, as Cindy Lawrence presented it, does not meet the requirements for funding due to the fact that it is only one day.  That alone is sufficient reason to deny funding.  I think it’s telling that she neglected to mention that little detail; it wouldn’t have come up at all if Mr. Wise hadn’t questioned her.  Whether deliberate or not, the omission casts the whole request as dishonest.
[While I understand the importance of Juneteenth to the black community, and am sympathetic, that doesn’t change the facts.  The CVB originally voted to give Juneteenth $15,000, but Mr. Brooks turned it down.  If Juneteenth isn’t funded this year, the organizers have no one to blame but themselves.  Coming back at the eleventh hour with a poorly put together, misleading request for an event that on its face doesn’t meet the funding requirements is ridiculous. – Brian Jones]

Mississippi Hills Heritage Area
Carolyn Perkins of the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area made a presentation about the organizations efforts to gain recognition as a unique tourist destination.  The area is comprised of 30 counties, including Lowndes.  The CVB is a participating member, paying $10,000 in dues per year.
“This is a federal program,” she said.  “It’s funded by Congress.  We were designated a national heritage area in 2009.  We have three national heritage areas in the state: the Delta, the Hills and the Gulf Coast.  Our area is bounded by Tennessee to the north and Highway 14 to the south, and the Alabama board in the east and I-55 in the west.  It is amazing how much culture there is in that area, and you’re right in the middle of it in Columbus.”
The heritage area is receiving $150,000 per year in federal support for its first three years, she said, but will be eligible for more in the future.
Perkins showed a video produced to market the area, as well as a thirty-second spot that focuses on Columbus.
[I missed the rest of her presentation, and Executive Director Nancy Carpenter’s monthly report, because I had to leave early to go to the Columbus Municipal School Board meeting at 6 p.m. – Brian Jones] 0

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