Chamber ‘interested’ in taking over county travel and tourism

Published 8:34 am Monday, February 28, 2011

B&B owners urge county not to transfer service
The Foothills Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to county commissioners recently saying the board is “unanimous in their interest” in taking on the task of assuming travel and tourism duties.
“We strongly believe that the chamber is the appropriate organization to handle the job and that we could handle it very well,” said chamber president Andy Millard in a letter to commissioners.
Chamber members did say they had a few questions before making a final decision as to whether or not they would accept the responsibilities. County commissioners met Monday, Feb. 21 and directed county manager Ryan Whitson to answer those questions.
Also last week, travel and tourism advisory board chair Peggy Turner submitted a letter asking the county to appoint an open position on the travel and tourism board, to allow the board to spend budgeted monies to invest in the website and to place the travel and tourism advisory board on the county’s March 21 agenda.
“The Polk County tourism businesses have great concerns about the proposed changes to the Polk County Travel and Tourism department,” Turner said. “They request that you do not make a hasty decision about the tourism department’s fate and that you allow them time on your March 21, 2011 meeting agenda to make a presentation with their recommendations on changes and/or plans for the department’s future.”
Some accommodation providers have already expressed concern over the chamber possibly taking over travel and tourism services.
Jim Ott, owner of the Mimosa Inn, says there are some facts about the issue that the Bulletin has not addressed, including that the county’s travel and tourism office was created by an occupancy tax that accommodation providers asked to be imposed on visitors. The revenue from that tax is dedicated by law to promote travel and tourism in Polk County. Ott said the biggest elephant in the room is that the accommodation providers have for years “constantly and consistently complained to the county manager and county commission regarding the operation and direction of the travel and tourism office, feeling changes were needed to make the office efficient.”
“These complaints were for the most part politely listened to and then ignored, sometimes; suggestions were modified to such an extent to be ineffective,” said Ott. “Therefore the complaints continued. In truth, county officials are actually just plain tired of hearing about (travel and tourism), and the idea to transfer the office along with daily responsibility to the chamber looks on the surface as a good way to dispose of the problem and actually save money while doing it.”
Ott said he doesn’t think the chamber has the same agenda as accommodation providers.
Chamber director Janet Sciacca said the chamber was asked by county officials if they would be interested in taking on the role as a means of trimming the county budget. She said the chamber did not seek the proposal out.
Sciacca also said those opposed have not sought her out.
“None of the accommodations owners who seem so opposed to the idea have called us and I think that is interesting,” Sciacca said. “So I don’t feel they do know what the chamber’s stance is. I welcome anyone to come into our office and talk with me about it.”
Other travel and tourism industry providers have also expressed concern about the current tourism advisory board being dissolved and the chamber creating a new board with chamber members. Some area accommodation providers are not chamber members.
The county included seven letters in its agenda packet last week from various tourism related businesses that do not want the county to transfer the service to the chamber.
“Tourism is the main economic engine of the county and to pull all funding on travel and tourism would be a huge mistake to the local tourism industry,” said Saluda Business Association officers Catherine Ross, Jim Carson, Cathy Jackson, Shelley Dekay and Joni Mahaffey. “Furthermore, allowing the Carolina Foothills Chamber of Commerce to manage the local tourism would be destructive to the industry and a conflict of interest.”
A few letters mentioned what a detriment it would be to lose travel and tourism director Melinda Young, who has been described as a “driving force” for travel and tourism.
Butterfly Creek Retreat and Spa owner Sarah Huff asked the county to consider options less drastic than allowing the chamber, which “crosses state lines and has historically proven to not support local businesses in tourism,” to take over tourism office duties.
“Most of the tourism related businesses in our area have dropped out of the chamber due to its ineffectiveness,” said Huff.
Sciacca said the chamber has done their homework and believes there is no reason it would not be capable of handling the challenge.
“This is not something we were looking for, but we would try and do the very best job we could. Right now its all still very up in the air,” Sciacca said.
Sciacca said the chamber would have to hire an additional staff member. Millard’s letter to the commission included a list of what the chamber understands can be included in the contract:
• The current $60,000 to $65,000 in occupancy tax would be transferred to the chamber tourism office.
• The county would provide $10,000 in start-up funds on July 1.
• The chamber will request a four-year contract.
• The chamber will provide a financial statement of expenses annually.
• The current tourism advisory board will be dissolved.
• The chamber will form a tourism steering committee consisting of chamber board members.
• The chamber will maintain a website specifically for Polk County.
“If we are given the responsibility of operating travel and tourism, we will require full authority in executing that responsibility, including how the funds are spent, who to hire, etc.,” Millard’s letter said. “Along these lines, please be advised that we would not be bound by any contracts entered into by the current tourism board from this point forward until the contract is signed and agreed upon. Again, we do have a keen interest in taking on this very important job.”
Accommodations providers plan to meet March 3 to discuss the issue. Polk commissioners will hear from the travel and tourism advisory board during the March 21 meeting in the commissioner’s meeting room of the Womack building at 3 p.m.