BY BRIAN JONES
The Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau on Monday discussed its financial status, approved its budget, including a revamped local grant process, and discussed arrangements with strategic planning consultant Don Anderson.
The CVB showed a profit in spite of the fact that tax collections were down over the preceding year, according to Treasurer Bart Wise.
“Due to some timing issues, we showed a net loss for the month of $25,000,” Wise said. “But for the year we are actually showing a profit of $76,000. If you look at the city and county tax receipts, the monthly average for collections from the city was about $121,000, and the county receipts averaged about $10,000. The previous year the city average was $127,000 and the county was $6,800. We are about $32,000 down on collections from what we budgeted, yet we’re still showing a profit of nearly $76,000. I think that’s because we’re really watching what we’re spending.”
Local grant guidelines overhauled
Although the budget was discussed last month at the retreat, the board had asked for more information on several items: local grants, recreation spending and marketing.
The first area under discussion was local grants. Whereas previously local festivals had to reapply for funding every year, now they are included in a $95,000 line item in the CVB’s budget. The tourism and quality of life categories have been eliminated; all grants now are considered quality of life, with a $10,000 maximum size. Unpopular requirements to spend 25 percent on advertising and no more than 25 percent on entertainment have been removed. The festivals and their grant amounts are:
• Artesia Days: $8,000
• Caledonia Days: $8,000
• Crawford Days: $6,500
• Dinner Theater: $6,500 (This year is the first year for this event, and grant funding for next year is contingent on it being successful.)
• MLK Dream 365: $10,000 ($15,000 funding for the next event has already been approved, but will be $10,000 going forward.)
• Juneteenth: $10,000
• Market Street Festival: $10,000
• Roast N Boast: $6,000
• Seventh Avenue Heritage Festival: $10,000
• Tennessee Williams Tribute: $10,000
• Southside Townsend Blues Festival: $10,000
Festivals will still have to file project clearance reports, Executive Director Nancy Carpenter explained. Instead of the old requirements on spending, recipients will be held to the current Mississippi Development Authority guidelines. For example, a marketing plan must be submitted; funding may be used for media placement and production; printed materials; video production; public relations; strategic planning and research; event development; web site development; event enhancement; signage; equipment purchase or rental; and musician fees.
In order to be reimbursed, expenditures must be documented with an invoice and a check.
“We will not reimburse any cash or receipts,” Carpenter said. “Everything must be properly documented.”
“New festivals may come to us for consideration on a case-by-case basis,” Carpenter said. “If we decide to fund them, money will come out of the marketing line item.”
[Many of these changes originate with the grant committee’s deliberations earlier this year. Many festival organizers felt the grant structure was too restrictive, and the grant committee said they would take their suggestions up later. Clearly, they listened. I’m not overjoyed to see some of the older festivals in here – this year proved that Juneteenth can put on a festival without any help from the CVB, and if they can do it others can, too – but I hope this puts an end to the fighting over grant sizes. I think a $10,000 cap is more than reasonable. – Brian Jones]
The increase in quality of life funding was approved 6-2, with Leon Ellis and Bart Wise voting no.
The line item was approved 7-1, with Ellis voting no.
Recreation funding, marketing expenses
The next two budget items up for debate were recreation and marketing.
Ellis questioned the way that numbers for recreation events were reported.
[This part of the discussion actually occurred earlier in the meeting, but I’m including it here to make it easier to follow the whole thing. – Brian Jones]
“The issue that I have is with the information that (Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority Executive Director Roger Short) sent over,” Ellis, who formerly served on the CLRA board, said. “They are estimating $160 or so per person, and they are multiplying all that out. If you have somebody coming from Mathiston or Starkville or Caledonia, that is not going to work. They’re not going to spend that much money. I think the information is bogus and we need to look at this pretty close.”
“I wouldn’t call it bogus,” Carpenter said. “It’s not an exact science. There are times that soccer players are close, but there are a lot of times they will come from across the state. With the first tournament, there are 80 teams with 10 players each. That’s 800 people. That doesn’t include parents and grandparents and siblings. There is a reason there is a fight for these tournaments across the state. You can’t say exactly it’s going to be an impact of X dollars, but it’s much more important than some of the local events we do.”
“All I’m saying is that each tournament needs to be looked at,” Ellis said. “If the participants are close, that doesn’t work.”
“I am heavily involved with soccer,” said Board Attorney Chris Hemphill. “The only teams that we have in that category is Starkville and Caledonia. The next closest team that would be here is Tupelo.”
“(Short) didn’t give me figures for soccer,” Ellis said. “He was talking about baseball. I’m not talking about a specific tournament. The information on the local baseball tournament was Starkville, Mathiston, Caledonia and Columbus. Four of the teams were right here. He was supposed to get back with me about the soccer information.
“The numbers needs to be realistic,” Ellis said. “Don’t inflate something for me and try to make me swallow it. It doesn’t leave a good taste.”
The recreation line item of $144,000 passed unanimously.
The marketing line item saw a 34% increase over last year’s figures, growing to a total of $310,000. Carpenter stated that, in her opinion, the CVB had been spending far too little on advertising.
“We should be spending about 47 percent of our budget on advertising,” she said. Carpenter said that would be in line with other national organizations.
Ellis questioned some expenditures, including $28,000 for promos on the Jumbotron at Mississippi State University.
“How do you quantify that investment?” he asked.
“We started last year,” Carpenter said. “If you look at how our hotel and restaurants do during football season, I think it’s worth it.”
“But wouldn’t they do well anyway during football season?” Ellis asked.
“I was over at the welcome center one day and we had just advertised on the Jumbotron and there were eight people from Atlanta and they said they never stopped here until they saw that ad,” Carpenter said.
“I would hope there are more than eight,” Ellis said. “I just want to know how you determine that investment.”
“When we spend $17,000 on a fishing tournament and then say that turns into $100,000 locally, I think we can easily see that buy investing $29,000…I didn’t know that was going to be asked, but I can get those figures for you,” Carpenter said. “With Smith Travel Research we can tell occupancy in our hotels.”
“I’m not against spending money, I just want to know what we’re getting for it,” Ellis said.
The marketing line item was approved unanimously.
The board questioned a contract expense for Don Anderson, the consultant retained to help develop a strategic plan. Several board members claimed they did not know that the CVB had contracted with him to develop a new strategic plan.
[Mr. Anderson appeared at the CVB board retreat. He was supposed to talk about the strategic planning process, but, due to the length of the board meeting, did not have the time and so answered some general questions for about half an hour. He is slated to return to Columbus in the near future to try again.
[Confusingly, Mr. Anderson was apparently retained in 2005 by the CVB to put together a strategic plan, but his plan was shelved by the director at that time without it ever being seen by board members. – Brian Jones]
Carpenter agreed to pay him $5,000 for his most recent efforts. A $3,500 retainer was already paid, and now the balance is owed. Bernard Buckhalter and Nadia Dale said they did not realize Anderson had been retained to do new work.
“I feel I was mislead,” Buckhalter said. “I thought he was just coming to explain to us about the strategic plan we already have.”
“I wish I had had a clearer understanding,” Dale said. “I definitely support the strategic plan, I think we need one, but I think we need a policy in place for this sort of thing. If we’re spending this kind of money, the board needs to make that decision.”
“I take full responsibility for that,” Carpenter said.
“I’m objecting to the way this was done,” Buckhalter reiterated. “I’m not objecting to the strategic plan. I don’t like being backdoored. I want to know what’s going on up front.”
The board voted 7-1 to pay Anderson the remaining balance, with Buckhalter voting no.
Buckhalter asked that the board go into executive session to discuss potential litigation, and they disappeared behind closed doors.
[I had to leave to dash across town to the Columbus Municipal School District meeting and so missed the executive session. From what I have since learned it was to discuss a pay raise given to Ms. Carpenter by the members of the executive board. Apparently they saw fit to give her a $10,000-per-year or so raise without telling the other board members. Mr. Buckhalter, quite reasonably, wanted some answers.
[I don’t think this qualifies for executive session. Job performance issues are closed-door material, but salaries are not; the potential litigation trigger is pulled only when the threat of a lawsuit is immanent, which I do not believe to be the case here. It seems to me that this was just another example of board members not wanting to discuss something embarrassing in public.
[In the end Ms. Carpenter’s raise was upheld and approved by the full board. According to two confirmed sources, with the raise, she will be making $80,000 a year with benefits plus an additional $15,000 as director of the Columbus Cultural and Heritage Foundation. — Brian Jones]