BY BRIAN JONES
At their June 18 meeting, the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau cut some funding from the Memphis BBQ Invitational, approved grant applications and approved new ethics policies.
Executive Director Nancy Carpenter began by praising the Memphis BBQ Invitational for research they did.
“They did some surveys, and told us exactly how many nights were spent in hotels and the average rate per night and revenue brought into the city,” said Executive Director Nancy Carpenter. “The amount was over $15,000. That did not include gas, money spent at Wal-Mart and things of that nature. We would like to do that kind of research for every event we fund.”
Carpenter then explained that the event did not follow spending guidelines, and recommended their reimbursement be reduced. They were originally awarded $9,000, with $4,500 paid in advance and the rest due upon submission and approval of a project clearance report.
“The criteria was not met, and I recommend they receive $1,347,” she said. “That will balance where they spent the money.” [Ms. Carpenter is saying that the $1,347 is the amount that was spent on things that fit the criteria. – Brian Jones] Carpenter said the event spent too little on advertising and too much on entertainment. CVB rules require that festivals spend no more than 25 percent on entertainment and at least 25 percent on advertising.
Organizer Mike Law took issue with her recommendation.
“The hard part of how this is set up is getting those dollars where you’re required,” he said. “When you look at the criteria for grants, really the only thing you’re looking to spend on is advertising and entertainment. I’ve read that thing over and over.”
“You could use postage, or there are several other things you can spend on,” Carpenter said.
“We brought in over 300 people,” he said. “It is my understanding that that’s what these events are for. When you fill out these forms correctly, you don’t put a lot of BS in there. That’s the point I’m making. We went out and spent the money, and now if we don’t get it when we’re supposed to get it it’s going to make it kind of tough. I feel like we’re being penalized for filling it out correctly.”
“I’m hoping that our grant is not set up to deter festivals and events,” said Whirllie Byrd. “I don’t see why we can’t give them that second half.”
“The Memphis BBQ Network has already come back to us wanting us to do the same event next year,” Law said. “Next year we’ll have more teams and more impact than this year. It’s disheartening to not get what we’ve been told we will.”
Carpenter said that money could have been spent on printing, postage, T-shirts or other areas.
“Do I understand correctly that 25 percent of the advertising money has to be spent outside a 100-mile radius?” asked Leon Ellis.
“Let me tell you something,” Law said. “Don’t take this the wrong way. At these smaller events, there’s no way they’re advertising 100 miles away. If you take out a billboard in Tuscaloosa, that’s only 60 miles away. You’d have to go to Greenwood or Jackson.”
“We consider WCBI to be over 100 miles away,” Carpenter said. “So does the Commercial Dispatch. We allow that.”
“That’s not clear in what you’ve got there,” Laws said. “When I think outside, I think I need to advertise in Meridian or Tuscaloosa. I’m not thinking about WCBI or the Dispatch because it’s not 100 miles away.”
“There’s a reason you ask for things,” said Mark Castleberry. “The reason you ask for over 100 miles away is because they’ll spend the night. People from Tuscaloosa won’t spend the night.”
“How many people do you think are coming from over 100 miles away to spend the night at these events?” Law asked.
“We hope a lot,” Carpenter said.
“I had 300 come in, but I didn’t advertise in Memphis,” Law said. “Now I’m being penalized.”
“If you’re not going to advertise that far away, ask for funding as a quality of life event,” said Rissa Lawrence.
“We had a lot come from over 100 miles away, but that’s not the point,” Law said.
“If we have rules, they need to be followed,” Castleberry said. “If the rules are not good, they need to be modified.”
The board voted 5-3 to pay Law the reduced amount. Bernard Buckhalter, Byrd and Nadia Dale voted no.
The board voted to approve five events that had applied for grants last month.
Roast n’ Boast asked for $14,000, and the grant committee recommended they be awarded $8,000. The motion passed 7-1, with Ellis voting no. Dinner Theater asked for $8,000, and was awarded that amount on a 6-2 vote, with Ellis and Bart Wise voting no. Both were approved with little discussion.
The Tennessee Williams Festival was the first event to spark debate. They asked for $15,000, but the grant committee recommended they be given $8,000.
“Why only $8,000?” Byrd asked. “What changed?”
“They applied as a tourism event,” Castleberry, who chairs the grant committee, responded. “With the attendance estimates they provided, that would be a subsidy of $30 per ticket. We thought that was excessive. The effect on the community does not support a $15,000 grant.”
“What numbers are you looking at?” Byrd asked.
“They are stating they will get 500 tourists,” Castleberry said. “We accepted that number. We thought it was close. You divide 500 tourists in $15,000 and you get $30 per ticket.”
“Are you looking at the economic impact of the fact that it’s a five-day event?” Byrd asked.
“The length of time doesn’t matter, it’s the number of people who spend the night,” Carpenter responded. “If you look at their application, the 500 includes Mississippi University for Women students. That is not included in who is coming in as a tourist. We looked at overnight attendees and day attendees. We estimated an economic impact of $24,000 on a grant of $15,000.”
“When they were here last month they also said they thought this would be the last time they would come to us for money,” said DeWitt Hicks. “I hate to cut them on the last day. We have spent a lot of money on the Tennessee Williams house that’s right next door.”
Tennessee Williams Festival was funded a $8,000 on a 5-3 vote, with Buckhalter, Byrd and Hicks voting no.
The grant committee recommended that Caledonia Days be funded $8,000, which was the amount they asked for. They applied as a quality of life event. Lawrence, whose husband is Caledonia Mayor-Elect Bill Lawrence, recused herself and left the room before any discussion began.
“With their attendance figures, that comes to a ticket subsidy of 80 cents,” Castleberry said. “We believe their count is accurate because they use wristbands. They counted 10,000 people last year.”
Byrd argued that it was a conflict of interest to fund Caledonia Days because of Bill Lawrence’s position.
“The problem I see is that the checks go to the town,” Byrd said. “There’s a conflict if her husband is getting the checks. In that case I don’t think we should fund it. It looks like there’s a red flag somewhere.”
Attorney Chris Hemphill explained that there was no conflict of interest.
“I have looked at that issue,” he said. “It is not going to his personal financial gain. It is to a governmental organization. If Ms. Lawrence herself were on that board, but in this situation…to avoid the appearance of impropriety she should recuse herself. This is not personal benefit to her or the mayor.”
“He is the mayor the entity receiving the money, and she as a spouse will probably help out as a volunteer,” Byrd said. “What’s the difference in that and Grillin’ on the River?”
“It is not money going to either one of them,” Hemphill said.
“He does not write checks on the account?” Byrd asked.
“I asked that question at the grant committee meeting, and it was made clear to me that he does not handle the money,” Nadia Dale said. “From what I understand the current mayor does not serve on that committee that organizes Caledonia Days, and the mayors do not have any role or responsibility.”
“I never met with the mayor or had discussions with him in the past,” Carpenter said.
“It just doesn’t set well with me,” Byrd said, “especially after what happened with Grillin’ on the River.”
“I’m concerned that we have a policy saying nobody on the board or their family members can benefit,” Buckhalter said. “Whether he is the mayor or an alderman, he benefits from this.”
The funding recommendation was approved 4-3, with Buckhalter, Byrd and Dale voting no.
[I have to wonder where Mr. Buckhalter and Ms. Byrd’s sudden concern about elected officials benefitting from CVB monies was when they voted in the past to fund events organized by Columbus Mayor Robert Smith, Councilman Kabir Karriem and Supervisors Leroy Brooks and Jeff Smith. Interesting that their conscience afflicts them now. I suppose they had a road to Damascus moment where the scales fell from their eyes, and from now on we can expect this level of scrutiny for all events. Right, guys? – Brian Jones]
Finally, the board voted to fund Dream 365. The grant committee recommended approving its $15,000 request, but Castleberry asked for a stipulation that they show more details.
“They did not show a profit/loss from the previous year, and we’d like to see a full accounting of that,” he said.
Byrd made a motion, seconded by Dale, to award the money, but with no further information needed.
“I object to that stipulation,” Buckhalter said. “We don’t ask that of any other event. Some people donate but don’t want their donation to be public knowledge.”
“They didn’t show their profit carryover,” Castleberry said. “Other events show that. I think they had $7,000 in profit from the last year’s event and they need to show that they did with that. My understanding is that they used it very well, but we’re not here to fund other events. If they’re giving money to a benevolent organization we need to be aware of that. Our purpose is not benevolence, our purpose is tourism, and we need to understand where our money is going to. I don’t want a listing of contributors. We’re not trying to find out that information.”
“We have asked Market Street Festival to do this very same thing,” Lawrence said. “This is not the first time this request has been made. The reason it’s not been made at any of the others is that they didn’t show a profit, they showed a loss. They didn’t have anything to show.”
“It doesn’t matter whether they’re in the red or black or whatever,” Buckhalter said. “That doesn’t have anything to do with it. It’s treating each festival the same. That’s not doing it.”
“I always thought the hope was that if festivals are profitable they carry the money over and they use that to wean themselves off of the CVB,” Wise said, “so we’re not a consistent go-to funding organization. We’re not here to incorrectly fund non-profits. It’s to build a war chest so in two or three years we’re not funding them.”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” Buckhalter said. “I want each organization to wean off, but don’t single one organization out. There is no stipulation on any other organization except Dream 365.”
The funding was approved, without a request for any more information, on a 6-2 vote, with Ellis and Lawrence voting no.
The board took off the table an ethics policy discussed at last month’s meeting.
Byrd aggressively questioned the policy, beginning with its authorship.
“Did the attorney draft this or where did it come from?” Byrd asked. “I can’t see the director drafting policy for this board.”
“The director is in charge of the entire operation,” Hicks said. “She is the hands-on, day-to-day operations. All this board does is direct policies. This is a policy. This board can adopt it, modify it or reject it. It’s been on the table for 30 days.”
“I wasn’t here at the last meeting so I was not aware until a few days ago,” Byrd said. “The management of all affairs of the CVB shall be invested in the board of directors, according to the law. I don’t see anything in there that Nancy has to draft policy for the board, so explain that for me.”
“There were no policies or procedures until I got here,” Carpenter said. “This is the beginning. You can vote it up or down.”
“So the board doesn’t have any influence on drafting its own policy?” Byrd said.
“You are exercising your authority right now,” Hicks said, drawing some laughter from the audience and board members.
Byrd then went after a portion of the policy that governed board members speaking to the media.
“What are you going to do with me if I speak to the media?” she asked.
“We deleted that part of the policy,” Carpenter said. “We are not deleting your right to speak.”
“Your question was about repercussions,” Hemphill said. “This would give your appointing authority the grounds to remove you.”
“This whole policy was drafted just like the one in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania,” Byrd said. [Lancaster County has a population of around 523,000. – Brian Jones] “It’s word for word. It’s not even our own draft.”
“I told you that,” Carpenter said. “I got permission to use it. They are flattered we want to use any of their policies. I said that at the last meeting and it was recorded in the minutes.”
“My vote is no,” Byrd said. “You’re the director can’t tell me how to…or set policy. I reject it. I’ll take it up with my appointing authority, which is the city.”
The policy passed 7-1, with Byrd voting no.
“I am voting no, and I will not abide by the policy so you can start action immediately,” Byrd said.