Local marina operators want assurance occupancy tax dollars are used to boost tourism as mandated

By THOMAS P. WEAVER

HORIZON Editor

CELINA-Clay County Marina Association representative Matt Roberts of Cedar Hill Resort addressed the county commission at their last planning meeting with a presentation concerning the allocation of new tax revenue being raised by a recently passed 2.5 percent hotel occupancy tax–which went into effect earlier this year.

Roberts–speaking on behalf of his employer, the other five marinas here in Clay County, and several local businesses represented at the meeting, explained the association is “asking for a resolution to be passed allocating a specific amount–at least 50 percent,” of the total tax revenue to be set aside “for tourism, to attract business to replace business lost” due to the passage of the tax.

“When you compare a total of 12.25 percent tax we have here in Clay County now to a rate as low as six percent charged at marinas just up the road in Kentucky, it will make a difference to the customer,” Roberts explained.  “It will cost us business, in turn costing the county tax dollars.

“If the money is used to help increase tourism, hopefully it will counteract the negative effect of the tax.”

The bill, passed in the state legislature and approved with a beginning collection date of January 1, 2010 by the county commission, mandates “the proceeds of the tax shall be deposited in a fund designated to be used for tourism and economic development,” but marina operators want a resolution passed to divide and budget the funds for each cause separately with at least half of the money going towards promoting tourism.

Roberts said the tax “was passed with very little research” and he explained “the effects the tax will have” on current business and the revenues it may generate “needed to be studied.”

“We need to change our attitude about tourism versus industry (economic development),” Roberts said.  “Factories and other industries have moved overseas lately and our local tourism industry isn’t going anywhere–there’s no threat of it leaving the country.

“While manufacturing jobs and call centers come and go, tourism is always going to be here.  It might be a little slow right now in these economic times, but it will return when things get better–that’s why we need to put this money to work attracting new customers immediately.”

He went on to say if the money is used to promote tourism, “we feel confident the return on the investment will be immediate and last long term” to the point “we could look at projects like building a meeting/convention center or use it for event funding in the future.”

He also listed establishing an internet presence; attending travel shows; improving appearances along roads through signage and landscaping; offering assistance to the city to improve the public square; and other ideas as potential ways to improve local tourism with proceeds raised by the tax.

Roberts’ presentation included a slide show featuring examples of how similar tax revenues are used in other areas, including Nashville, Gatlinburg, and the state of Kentucky.

Researching the ways others use the funds allowed Roberts to confidently say, “It’s easy to see other governments put at least 66 percent of the total raised by similar taxes back to work towards attracting new tourism customers.

“If it is used to seek new industry, not new tourism business, it will soon dry up like everything else,” Roberts said.  “When we say tourism, we’re not talking about paying the chamber of commerce to look for new industry–we’re talking about strict tourism promotion and infrastructure.”

Roberts explained the marinas “estimate at least 95 percent of their current business comes from the internet,” and Darren Shell of Willow Grove Resort said “the cheapest way to start (using the funds for tourism promotion) is through the internet.”

“Most of our customers will pay the tax without much trouble this year,” Shell said, “but they will weigh their options next year before they come back–this is why we need to get started now.”

Doug Smith of Mitchell Creek Marina agreed, saying he thought “at least 50 percent should go to tourism,” and he echoed Shell’s sentiments about using the internet.

Roberts suggested changing the format of the chamber’s current website, www.dalehollowlake.org, from a county and community oriented site to a website devoted to Dale Hollow Lake.

His slide show showed how the current website made no mention of the lake and explained those looking for a vacation here would be turned away by the site’s initial appearance.  He also showed an alternative look the website could display in order to attract potential vacationers.

Commissioner Bryan Coons said he thought it would be a good idea to change the current site to one that is dedicated to “Dale Hollow Lake only,” and create another site for the county and community information.

Chamber head Ray Norris said “he had plans to do just that,” and he also agreed with Roberts proposal of the change.

Norris also brought up the fact money from the proceeds of the tax would be collected for several months before it would be included in the next budget and he inquired about using the funds before the budget was passed.

“We’ve got three months before the new budget will be passed in July,” Norris said.

Jeff Longsworth of Hunters Lodge wanted to know if “the county has the money to start offsetting some of the loss of business now,” by getting started on the website change immediately.

Commissioners asked Roberts how much would be needed to begin the work on the website and he replied saying as little as $1,000 would go a long way towards retooling the site.

Roberts reinforced his hopes that the money would be “put to work” immediately, trying to spur the commission to take some action.

After some additional discussion between Roberts, the commission, and county Mayor Dale Reagan, it was decided the debate would continue at the next planning meeting with Reagan saying they “would work on a resolution at the March 29 planning meeting” and “vote on the resolution in April” at the commission’s regular session.

Reagan and commissioner Winton Young suggested the formation of a tourism committee, and Young joined commissioners Beverly Young, Timmie Scott, Michael Lee, and Dorothy Burchett/Forney as volunteers to be a part of the newly formed committee.

See a future HORIZON for more on this issue.

Other planning

meeting discussion

County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) director Natalie Boone addressed the commission regarding funding for emergency “Ham” radios to be used in the event of a disaster.

She said the Willow Grove Ham Radio Operators club had outdated equipment and they needed $3,000 to update their emergency radios with new repeaters.

Boone explained Overton and Pickett county had already pledged $1,000 each and she said they were only asking Clay County for a third of the total cost as well.

“The use of these radios is in our disaster plan,” Boone told the commission, “and TEMA is pushing hard for us to get this in place.

“This could be our only means of communication in a disaster.”

Boone told commissioners she wasn’t asking for a decision to be made at the meeting and said Aaron Maxfield, the president of the Willow Grove group, would like to make a presentation at the next planning meeting.

After some additional discussion including Boone saying the addition of the new equipment would help her agency secure recognition as being “storm ready” by NOAA, commissioners extended Maxfield the invitation through Boone.

The commission also heard a presentation by Renea Johnson concerning a spay/neuter program in the county, for which she said a $10,000 grant had already been secured.

She told those gathered she felt the number of abandoned and stray dogs was “a serious problem” here in the county, and she said she thinks “something needs to be done” about it.

Johnson said she would present more about her plans at the next meeting.

Commissioners then discussed the agenda for the March regular session, Reagan gave an update on the courtroom addition to the community center, a letter was read recognizing the accomplishments of Margaret Cody, and county attorney Hershel Lacy gave an update on the election commission lawsuits–as reported in last week’s HORIZON.

Maxwell resigns

constable seat

Commissioners found out third district constable Billy Maxwell resigned from his position at their regular session this month and they will soon have to decide whether to appoint someone to fill the position or wait until the August election to have the seat filled.

“We need to decide if we want to fill this seat or wait for the election,” commissioner Winton Young said.

Commissioner Lee thought the position had to be filled before the election and commissioner Timmie Scott suggested researching whether or not it had to be filled.

The commission decided to find out what action had to be taken and Young said, “We will let everybody know what we need to do at the next planning meeting.”

In other action, the commission:

• authorized the sale of delinquent tax property in the fourth district to Roger Smith for $250 “to get the property back on the tax rolls,”

• extended the lease of the FabCare (old Osh Kosh) building to Dutch Craft Sleep Products, LLC for three months under the same terms as the original lease,

• approved a budget amendment in the amount of $14,419.38 for community development grant funds, and

• passed a resolution in support of keeping state funding for York Agricultural Institute as a high school at the same level it has been in the past, “at no cost to the county,” Young explained.