BY BRIAN JONES
During a remarkably civil May 20 meeting, the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau discussed their financial status, heard several requests for grant funding and laid several policies – including one governing conflict of interest – on the table. Seven of the nine board members were present – Mark Castleberry and Whirllie Byrd were absent.
Treasurer Bart Wise reported that income had been steady over the past several months.
The March financials – which were tabled last month to allow board members more time to review them – were unanimously passed without comment.
“The new financials we have are the ones from April,” Wise said. “We had another pretty good month on tax receipts from the city. They’re holding at around $128,000. This month we’re currently looking at around $133,000. We’re having two or three pretty good months back to back.”
Harvey Myrick asked if any checks from the CVB accounts had been written to cover Pilgrimage events.
“I’m just concerned that we’re writing checks from the CVB that should be paid for by the Cultural Heritage money,” Myrick said.
“It is,” said CVB Executive Director Nancy Carpenter. “We have a separate account.”
“Do you have a certain check in mind?” asked Chairman DeWitt Hicks.
“No, I did not come up here and look at the checks,” Myrick said. “I’m just asking a general question.”
“I would say no,” Carpenter said. “We do a really good job of making sure the checks go to the right account.”
“I’m not questioning that you do a good job, I’m just making sure checks were not written by the CVB during the Pilgrimage,” Myrick said. “But I think I have an answer, and that was no.”
Hicks asked Wise to explain how the CVB was going to pay for its third of the bridge rehabilitation project, which is nearing completion. The CVB is on the hook for $133,000.
“I talked to [City Engineer Kevin Stafford] and it looks like it’s maybe going to come due in the month of June,” Wise said. “The bridge is almost complete, and the city and county have funded their share on the front end. A while back we were going to set aside money into our savings account and just let it build. Instead we took the money that was going to the bridge and used it to pay the line of credit down. When it comes time to make the disbursement we can draw back on that line of credit some and we will probably draw down our checking account a little bit. But we are in good shape to make that payment at this time.”
The board then entertained several grant requests. Roast n’ Boast, dinner theater, the Tennessee Williams Festival, Caledonia Days and Dream 365 all applied for funding. Mike Laws appeared on behalf of Roast n’ Boast.
Laws was also one of the organizers of the Memphis BBQ Invitational earlier this year.
“We are requesting a tourism grant,” Laws said. “We just got done with the Memphis invitational, and we filled 94 hotel rooms. I confirmed all of those myself. We’re anticipating 35-40 teams coming in for the Roast ‘n Boast. We’re trying to bring people in from out of town.”
“What’s different this time?” asked Leon Ellis. “You haven’t asked for money before.”
“It has been a long time since we asked for money,” Laws said. “We just haven’t been as successful in the past years. It cost us probably $35,000 to put it on.”
“How come it’s not been successful?” Ellis asked.
“I can’t speak to what happened in the past,” Laws said. “We’re trying to attract more out of town teams and get more people to come to Columbus.”
“Do you know who your bands are going to be?” Rissa Lawrence asked.
“We’re not sure yet,” Laws said. “We know we’re going to have two or three on Friday and two on Saturday. We’re also going to have vendors out there.”
“You’re asking for 65 percent of your total budget from the CVB,” Ellis said. “And you got no public money in the past.”
“Not since I’ve been involved with it, no, and I’ve been involved for six years,” Laws said.
“I’ve been here since 2008 and they’ve not applied for funding,” Carpenter said. “I’d like to point out that they’re spending 51 percent of the budget on advertising and only 16 percent on entertainment.” [Under tourism grant guidelines, festivals must spend at least 25 percent on advertising and no more than 25 percent on entertainment. – Brian Jones]
“We’ve already gotten billboards in the Tuscaloosa area, in Columbus, Starkville, West Point and north of Aberdeen,” Laws said. “We’re committed to about $2,800 or $3,000 already.”
“We’re spending money in other towns and hoping that we’re going to get some back,” Ellis said. “We need to be able to track what we spend to see what bang we’re getting from our buck.”
Laws explained that he had surveyed participants at Memphis BBQ and would do the same with Roast n’ Boast. Carpenter added that a software package will be in place next week to help track festivals’ economic impact.
Simeon Weatherby asked for a quality of life grant to support his dinner theater project.
The event will last for two nights around Christmastime, he said.
“We will showcase live jazz, spoken word and a full-length stage play with a multi-course fine dining experience,” he said. “We have a lot of local talent here, so why do people have to go out of town to see a performance? Why can’t we work together to do it here and have something fantastic? In 2010 I decided to try to organize a dinner theater event and see what happened. I went to the Trotter Convention Center and learned that it cost $1,000 to rent for one night. I got some friends that knew how to cook, and Harvey’s helped me with the food. I got some friends who were willing to serve. We wanted to create the atmosphere of a big city. I used my income to advertise. We used word of mouth, we made 5,000 hand fliers, I got on ‘Midmorning’ and ‘Sunrise’ on WCBI. We advertised for one month in the Packet because we knew that one ad would last for a whole week, instead of having to advertise every day in the Dispatch. We ended up selling out all 400 tickets, with prices from $22 to $30. The play we did was donated to us by a church in Louisville, and they brought their church family. We ended up breaking even. The next year I didn’t have that network of people in Louisville. The second year it was still coming out of my pocket, but it was something I really wanted to do. We did the same 5,000 fliers, and I was on TV once and in the Packet for one week. We still attracted 240 people.
“Last year I took a break from it because I had a new job at West Lowndes High School and I didn’t know how much time I would have,” he said. “I got a lot of messages asking when I was going to do it again. That showed me that there was a lot of interest. I think our event will draw people into Columbus during the busy holiday season. This year I am asking for some help. I read in the newspaper about your quality of life grant, and that is exactly what we need. It would be a big help with advertising and entertainment.”
Weatherby said he will put on a 1.5-hour gospel play written for the occasion by a playwright in West Point. A gospel choir from Mississippi State University, jazz performances and spoken word performances will round out the evening, he said. The event will be held twice.
Proceeds will go towards a program for art education for minorities, he said.
Weatherby said he wants to get a billboard on Highway 45, as well as fliers and posters, social media, radio advertisements on three stations and newspaper and television ads.
“This has the potential to become an annual event,” Weatherby said.
“Do you know how many total hours this will be?” Lawrence asked.
“We’ll start around 7 p.m. and probably be out by 10 or 11 p.m.,” he said.
“It sounds very exciting,” Lawrence said. “The only reason I ask is that our guidelines say it has to be a minimum of a two-day event.”
“The purpose of that is to get people to spend the night,” Carpenter said. “It doesn’t mean it has to be a certain number of hours.”
The Tennessee Williams Tribute made a brief presentation, asking for $15,000 in tourism funding.
“We hope this will be the last year we have to ask for your support,” said Keith Gaston. “The new board of directors is going to aggressively seek funds.”
He said that the festival has asked for $7,000 from the Humanities Council and $5,000 from the state arts commission.
“Two of our board members live out of state, so we are going to look for support from out-of-state sources,” he said.
[A good bit of his presentation was taken up by a back-and-forth with Ms. Carpenter about items the festival had included in their brochure but not talked to the CVB about. For example, the brochure lists a bus tour, but organizers have not asked for the use of the CVB bus. (And it is already committed, if I understood Ms. Carpenter correctly.) I am going to omit a lot of it in the interest of space. – Brian Jones]
Caledonia Days and Dream 365 submitted applications but did not make presentations. [Events that have received funding in the past are not required to present again. – Brian Jones]
Lawrence questioned the Dream 365 proposal, noting that their closeout report showed a profit of about $7,000, but that profit was not reflected in the new proposal.
“Shouldn’t they bring that forward?” Lawrence asked.
“All of them should do that,” Carpenter said.
“They need to show it, whether it’s a profit or a loss,” Lawrence said.
Bernard Buckhalter disagreed.
“I never read anything that said they had to show a profit,” Buckhalter said.
“They don’t have to show a profit,” Carpenter said. “But they have to document whether they made or lost money.”
“I think the whole point is that if they make a profit they need to show that money when they come before us next year,” Hicks said.
“They should use that as their startup money for next year,” Lawrence said.
“We don’t have a policy that says that,” Buckhalter said. “We don’t say that they have to show a profit. There is nothing in the policy. Nothing.”
“We’re talking about two different things,” Wise said. “As good stewards we need to see what happens with any profit.”
The board members began talking over each other, and the meeting devolved into a hubbub until Hicks restored order.
Dream 365 organizer Leonard Dickerson, who was in the audience, asked to speak to address Lawrence’s concern.
“Dream 365 is an organization,” he said. “We are more than just the annual event. We hold workshops, we work with other organizations, we participate in scholarships. We receive funding from several people, as well as contributions. We are very responsible with your money, we show you every single dime. We spend it according to your guidelines, but there are other things that we need to do. You are seeing all the money that comes in [in our documentation], not just your money. If you say that we have to carry that profit forward for next year, it’s going to be very difficult for us.”
“We are here to get these events established, but we are not here to help events make a profit,” Ellis said. “That money should go back into the event.”
“I think we hope that you eventually start weaning off of our funding,” Wise said. “We sponsor a specific event, not so much the other programs with the funding.”
“If you want to see the $15,000 and not the other money, sure,” Dickerson said. “But what you are looking at shows everything.”
The board took no action.
The board tabled policies governing conflicts of interest, board meetings and inventory management.
The conflict of interest policy requires that festivals separate themselves from public officials and their families: “No elected official of Columbus or Lowndes County, CVB Board Member, CVB/CHF Employee or immediate family member of any above named person, will request or directly/indirectly receive any public funds received by the CVB, nor will they have any financial interest in any event funded by CVB. Furthermore, any above person will not be allowed on any documents that may be required to request or receive any of the above public funds.” A relative is defined as a public servant’s spouse, child, parent, sibling or in-law.
The policy also defines conflicts of interest as they pertain to CVB board members: “A conflict of interest exists whenever a Director’s personal or business interests are inconsistent with, adverse or harmful to the polices and interests of the Columbus CVB…a conflict of interest also exists when a Director acts in a position of authority on an issue that is before the Columbus CVB in which the Director has financial or other interests.” Board members will be required to fill out an annual statement listing their affiliations or interests in local businesses or organizations.
The board meeting policy establishes the CVB’s regular meeting times, procedures for calling a special meeting and rules governing attendance via teleconference.
All policies will lay on the table for 30 days before being adopted.
[Mr. Buckhalter asked that several changes be made to the policies as written. I will get into the changes, if any are made, next month when they are taken off the table and voted on. – Brian Jones]