Business as usual

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With restaurant tax in the balance, tourism staff continues to work

By Stephen Lega

The staff of the Lebanon Tourist and Convention Commission is preparing to greet tourism officials from around the state one week after the Lebanon City Council expressed a desire to do away with the local restaurant tax that provides the bulk of the commission's budget.

The Kentucky Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus will hold its quarterly meeting today through Friday in Lebanon. And next week, on March 25, the Kentucky Festivals and Events Association will hold its Spring conference in Lebanon.

Lebanon Tourism Director Chris Hamilton said around 30 tourism officials will attend the KACVB conference, including 20 or more who will be staying in town during the conference. Hamilton said in addition to the overnight stays, the convention has four meals planned as part of the conference.

"This is not the type of thing that happens on its own," Hamilton said. "It takes recruitment."

At the same time, the tourism commission's investment is comparatively small - making phone calls, preparing paperwork to secure the event, and providing snacks for the convention participants.

During its March 7 meeting, the city council supported a motion by Councilman Jerry Abell to eliminate the local restaurant tax, which provides a majority of the tourism commission's revenue. Before the tax can be eliminated, the council must approve two readings of an amendment to its tourism ordinance and then publish the amendment.

Mayor Gary Crenshaw, who supports the restaurant tax, said during the city council meeting that eliminating the tax would "gut" the tourism commission. Abell disagreed and said the commission could get by working with local businesses and organizations.

According to the 2010-11 budget, the commission will receive an estimated $237,500 from the restaurant tax and $28,600 from the hotel tax.

Funding tourism

The Enterprise attempted to contact many of the tourism commissions listed on the KACVB website through emails and phone calls. Based on the replies that have been received as of press time, the commissions that operate without restaurant taxes tend to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars from their hotel taxes.

The Hopkinsville-Christian County Commission receives approximately $217,000 from its hotel tax. The Frankfort/Franklin County Tourism Commission's hotel tax raises nearly $500,00 per year, and the Marshall County Tourist Commission collects an estimated $390,000 annually from its hotel tax.

There are exceptions to this pattern, however. The Hart County Tourism Bureau receives approximately $50,000-60,000 from its hotel tax, but has a budget of around $140,000. According to Sandra Wilson, the Hart County Tourist Commission executive director, that commission receives matching funds from the state (as does Lebanon) and contracts with Caveland Marketing to staff a tourist center at Mammoth Cave National Park.

Also within Hart County, the Munfordsville Tourism Commission operates on a 3 percent restaurant tax that raises around $175,000 annually. The Munfordsville Commission does not have a hotel tax.

The Mt. Vernon-Rockcastle County Tourist Commission is similar to Lebanon in that is has both hotel and restaurant taxes. The hotel tax raises an estimated $52,000 per year, while the restaurant tax brings in an estimated $300,000.

The Elizabethtown Tourism and Convention Bureau also has both taxes. The hotel tax raises approximately $550,000 per year, but the restaurant tax raises around $2 million per year, according to Sherry Murphy, the executive director of the Elizabethtown bureau.

She said the hotel tax revenue is used to pay the five full-time and two part-time staff employed by the bureau. The restaurant tax revenue is used to fund major projects, like the $20-25 million sports complex that is scheduled to open in 2012 in Elizabethtown.

Dawn Przystal is the president of the KACVB and vice-president of tourism expansion and marketing for the Bardstown-Nelson County Tourism and Convention Commission. She said her position is basically the same as Hamilton's position in Lebanon, she just has a different title.

Bardstown has a 1 percent restaurant tax and the county has a 3 percent hotel tax, which provides the funding for the Bardstown commission. Przystal said the restaurant tax generates around $355,000 in revenue and the hotel tax brings in $145,000 to $150,000.

Although her community is larger than Lebanon, she said the restaurant tax is essential for their commission.

"Without that, we wouldn't be able to do much of anything," Przystal said.

She added the restaurant tax is necessary for the Bardstown commission to hire staff and to market the community.

"If you don't have staff, you can't be effective," Przystal said.

Staffing question

During the March 7 council meeting, Councilman Kenny Marrett made a motion to eliminate the tourism office and to offer severance packages to the tourism employees (Hamilton and administrative assistant Carla Wagner). That motion died for lack of a second.

However, Marrett pointed out that not all tourism commissions have an executive director. He cited the Springfield Tourism Commission as an example.

Kathy Elliott is the assistant city project coordinator for the City of Springfield. She said she serves as the administrative assistant to the Springfield Tourism Commission as part of her job.

The Springfield commission is funded through 3 percent hotel and restaurant taxes. From January through December of 2010, the Springfield hotel tax generated around $14,500 and the restaurant tax generated approximately $215,000, according to Elliott.

She added that she doesn't have time to recruit events to Springfield because of her other non-tourism related job responsibilities. According to her, Springfield city hall, the Springfield-Washington County Chamber of Commerce and the Springfield Main Street Renaissance Office have all become contacts for potential visitors.

"We all get questions from tourists," she said.

Sandra Davis, the chairwoman of the Springfield Commission, said their commission has only been around for three years.

For now, the Springfield commission is focused on developing a local attraction - possibly a Lincoln museum to go along with Washington County's new Abraham Lincoln statue - to serve as a tourist draw for the community.

She also said they hope to hire an executive director some day.

Springfield was the only commission that responded to the Enterprise that does not have an executive director or a similar position to handle day-to-day tourism matters.

Meeting today, March 16

The Lebanon Tourist and Convention Commission is meeting at 3:30 p.m. today, March 16.

Items on the agenda include the minutes of the previous meeting, the treasurer's report (with receipts and bank balances and reimbursements), executive director's evaluation, the amended budget and the meal expense policy.

This is a rescheduled regular meeting of the tourist commission, and it is considered a special-called meeting, according to a 1992 Attorney General's opinion (1992-OMD-1473).