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Council’s ‘No’ vote on tourism has people talking, worrying

With a substantial loss in funding, the future of tourism promotion in Harrison County may be in peril.
Jim Epperson, director of the Harrison County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he is still ‘crunching numbers’ since the county council turned down the CVB’s request for the balance of tourism dollars for 2005.
At its May 23 meeting, the council voted 4-2 against Chris Timberlake’s motion to approve $419,000 for the CVB, the balance of its budget for the year. The money includes tourism development payments from the state based on income from ‘The Glory of Rome’ gambling boat and the four-percent innkeeper’s tax paid by travelers.
Council chair Gary Davis said he was surprised the funding was turned down, though he has some thoughts as to the reasons, and he intends to talk with fellow council members between now and the next council meeting (June 13 at 7 p.m.). He is also considering meeting with CVB chair Michael Wiseman and CVB director Jim Epperson.
‘I know Epperson and the CVB think we’re withholding their money,’ Davis said. ‘I haven’t talked to the individual people who voted against it.
‘But the council believes the taxpayers look to us to control spending in the county.
‘There is a majority of people on the council, including me, who believe the answer to the question ‘ Can you effectively spend $1 million promoting tourism in Harrison County? ‘ is no,’ Davis said. ‘I think that was the original question the council was asking, and I think that was the question the council was still asking.’
A major issue with one opponent, Councilman Ralph Sherman, is that some residents and voters think the CVB is already receiving too much money.
Councilman Carl (Buck) Mathes just wants representation on the Main Street Corydon board. That’s because Main Street, which represents private business concerns, received $300,000 from the CVB to purchase the vacated Keller Furniture Co. property in Corydon. And because the CVB receives money through the council, the council should be in on decisions, Mathes said.
‘It’s not taxpayers’ money, so to speak, but evidently the state legislature thought we should have some control over that money,’ Mathes said. ‘I’m trying to look out for the best interest of the county.’
If the council wishes to look out for the best interest of the county, according to Linda McKim’s viewpoint, it would support the CVB. ‘I stand 100 percent behind the CVB,’ said McKim, who manages the Hampton Inn in Corydon.
‘They’re working on building the image of Harrison County as a tourism spot,’ said McKim. She said she’s seen tourism travel increase here in the last three years.
‘I’ve seen that in day-to-day operations,’ she said. ‘I’m seeing how much leisure travel we’re getting.’
Retired banker and local investor Mark Wiseman, principal owner of the Kintner House Inn in Corydon, said innkeepers collect the tax from their guests and pay the money to the state with the full expectation that it will be used to promote tourism.
If the council is unhappy with the CVB’s spending, then it should change the makeup of the tourism board which is responsible for the CVB, Wiseman said.
Simply refusing to appropriate the money ‘is not the way to resolve the problem,’ Wiseman said.
Lest he be misunderstood, Wiseman said he doesn’t believe changes are necessary, but if they were, a change in the board would be the right step to take.
Wiseman said he believes the council and some in the public are unaware of the CVB’s long-range planning and marketing strategy for tourism development.
‘There are a lot of things people may not see and that may not today generate additional tourism visits, but it’s a process they’re in, and I believe it’s a good one,’ Wiseman said, adding: ‘I’m not just saying that because my son (Michael, chair of the CVB board of directors) is involved. I believe the process that they’re in is a good one to developing long-term, long-reaching, tourism development.’
McKim said, ‘We as hoteliers and tourism people need to let (the council) know we are dependent on and appreciate the CVB. Whatever reasons they’re not giving them the money, let’s do what we can to educate them.’
As for Councilman Alvin Brown, another naysayer, that would be just fine. ‘I feel uneasy,’ he said. ‘There’s a lot of unanswered questions. I need more information.’
The lease of a van for $14,000 when it could have been bought for $20,000, Brown said, was a sticking point. Councilwoman Rhonda Rhoads questioned Epperson about that purchase before she voted to deny the CVB’s request.
Brown said: ‘Feedback from the public is they hire too many people.’
At least two of those people believe their jobs are on the line: Sean Hawkins and Sherry Watson.
‘I think I would be one of the first who would be let go,’ said community development director Sean Hawkins, now in his third year.
‘You wouldn’t want to get rid of your Visitor Center people,’ he said.
Hawkins said he thinks the council has withheld funding to the ‘only truly economic development program’ in place, and that ‘is totally foolish.’
He noted that on the previous weekend, 2,000 people visited Art on the Square, 125 cars showed up for a show at Culver’s, and 220 boats were launched at Cave Country Canoes. ‘There was significant revenue coming in,’ Hawkins said.
‘I don’t think the (council) had a clue how tourism works.’
Sherry Watson, community relations and visitor services manager for the CVB, said the council’s action ‘was a slap in the face. I’m at a loss’ as to what should be done now, Watson said.
‘I think we need to concentrate more on getting our information out, not just to government but to the community about the importance of tourism,’ she said. ‘Maybe we need more advertising or more campaigns to drive that message home to the local residents so that everybody can understand more.’
But she’s not sure that will matter. ‘If this continues to go on, and we can’t meet our budget, one of the first things to happen is to cut back on employees. I’m very concerned,’ Watkins said.
Epperson said the CVB is now working on a letter to organizers of six of the festivals it has supported in the past. Those will be the first to go under the CVB budget. Advertising is ‘maxed,’ he said, so cancellation clauses in advertising contracts are being scrutinized to see what can be canceled. ‘There will be no new commitments.’
After that, the welcome center and visitor center will be closed, Epperson said, and administrative expenses cut. ‘There are some other administrative purchases we have planned but have held off because of cash flow’ that will be canceled and from then, cuts will be made wherever possible. That includes canceling conferences and cutting payroll, office supplies and equipment, he said.
There’s been no action thus far, but $106,000 earmarked for the Indian Creek Trail in the capital development fund could be the next to go. ‘We may not be able to carry through with that commitment,’ Epperson said.
The tourism bureau would cease to function once it could no longer carry out its primary function, which is marketing, Epperson said. Phone lines, the Web site, mailings and answering telephones all fall under the marketing umbrella.