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The Lebanon Tourist and Convention Commission has received a temporary reprieve.
Monday evening, the Lebanon City Council tabled the first reading of an amendment to the city's tourism ordinance that would have eliminated the restaurant tax that provides the bulk of the commission's revenue stream.
Instead, the council voted 5-1 to allow the commission to develop a plan for changes within 90 days of receiving input from community organizations. Councilman Jerry Abell cast the dissenting vote.
Tourism Commission Chairwoman Carlotta Brussell and Commissioner Dennis George presented a plan for internal reforms in how the commission operates.
"We understand that going forward, we need to do things differently," George said.
The tourism commission's proposal includes a rolling 90-day business plan, a review of any planned advertising by the commission (including efforts to promote more local events), increasing efforts with local restaurants to create promotions to encourage visitors to dine in their businesses, working to bring more events to Centre Square and looking for ways to cut costs.
George said that the commission would also like 90 days to implement changes and to receive input from the council on other changes. He added that he has discussed tourism with Councilmen Jay Grundy and Kenny Marrett since the council's March 7 meeting.
"When people work together, we can accomplish a lot and continue to move our community forward," George said.
Grundy responded by saying he didn't necessarily support how tourism has been run or Tourism Executive Director Chris Hamilton's actions. Grundy said he does think it may be premature to eliminate a tax that can benefit the community. However, he added that there is a problem in tourism, and he would like to try to fix it.
"It's similar to a car. If your car breaks down, you don't leave it on the side of the road, get a tow truck to pick it up and junk it," Grundy said. "You try to fix it first."
He then moved to table the first reading of the amendment that would eliminate the restaurant tax, and asked to re-evaluate the tourism commission's work based on suggestions from the city council, Lebanon Main Street Committee, Marion County Chamber of Commerce and Marion County Economic Development. He said he would like each of those groups to come up with three ideas to present to the commission.
"I also want to make a point that at the end of the 90 days, if change isn't made and progress isn't being made that I have no problem getting rid of the tax," Grundy said.
Marrett seconded Grundy's motion.
Bill Pickerill asked if the Centre Square Committee could offer input as well, and Grundy said he was OK with that.
Those groups will be asked to present their suggestion by the tourism commission's next meeting, which is scheduled for May 9, and the commission would then have 90 days to work on those suggestions.
Before the city council voted on Grundy's motion, Councilman Abell asked if the public could comment.
"The commission has had nine years to correct a wrong... I'd like to hear from the opposition," he said.
Mayor Gary Crenshaw said he would allow public comments from three people who are for the motion granting tourism an extension and three people who are against it.
Kenny Ballard of Loretto said he dines in Lebanon three or four days a week. He asked how they would measure progress. He said if they are talking about money, then he would not include the tourism at Maker's Mark because most of that tourism comes through Bardstown, not Lebanon.
Alex Ackermann said she is planning to open a winery in Marion County next year. She said Hamilton has answered all her question and helped her learn about grant and loan opportunities, and she is counting on tourism to help promote her winery around the state when it opens.
"I've had a great experience with tourism," Ackermann said. "I would like for you to consider keeping the tax in place."
Jama Watts said she has seen what tourism could do when she ran a coffee shop and what it has done locally as a librarian. According to her, tourism has helped bring genealogists to the Marion County Public Library from across the state and from as far away as California and Australia. She added that neighboring communities now have tourism commissions of their own.
"If we don't, that's just going to leave us behind," Watts said.
Tom Robey, a Loretto resident who owns Massage on Main, said he was speaking with a man from Ohio County recently who thought Maker's Mark was in Bardstown. He said Lebanon should be associated more closely with the distillery.
"It just don't make no sense to let other communities capitalize on what we have in this county," Robey said.
Jim Avritt Jr. said the local debate about the tax was a microcosm of the debate going on in Washington D.C. about the role of government. He questioned if it is government's role to provide entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights. He said he knows the commission can promote events, but he asked if that was government's role. Instead, he said government should create an environment where private business owners can create things to do in the community.
He noted that he has read about the economic impact of tourism, but he also expressed skepticism about how widespread that impact has been.
"Can anyone name one new business - one - that's has been created by tourism in the last eight years? Can anybody give me a job that's been created by tourism in the last eight years? I know of two, Mr. Hamilton and his secretary, but I'm not sure if there are any others," Avritt said.
He added that tourism has had its chance to succeed. He closed by quoting Winston Churchill, who once said a community trying to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket trying to lift himself by the handle.
Jack Shepperson concluded the public comments by saying he's heard many people take up for what tourism has done in the community, but anyone could do good in the community if they had $250,000 to $300,000 to use. He said the city could give him the money, he'd pocket some of it and then he could do work for people in the community.
In other city business:
- The council approved two proposals related to the Bourbon and BBQ MusicFest in May. The council agreed to pay to allow Chaser's to sell beer and liquor at Centre Square during the event, provided it receives the appropriate licenses.
The council also approved paying to install 20 hook-ups for recreational vehicles on city property, located behind Pickerill Motor Company. Marrett said the Lebanon Main Street Committee would reimburse the city for the RV hook-ups after they are installed.
- Marrett told the council that the Lebanon Main Street Committee previously received revenue from grants, but that funding has dried up.
Marrett recently visited Louisiana for training for the upcoming barbecue festival. He said he noticed his hotel bill included a tourism tax and a city tax. He asked if the city is legally allowed to add its own hotel tax, and if so, if that tax could be used to provide funds for the Main Street committee.
City Attorney Kandice Engle-Gray said she would look into that for the council.
- The council voted 5-0 to approve to renew its health insurance with United HealthCare. Marrett did not vote on this issue because he is in on the city's insurance policy. Also he pays for the premiums himself.
United was the only company that submitted a proposal to the city. Under the renewal plan, the city's monthly premium will increase from $29,073.42 to $32,563.81.
- The council approved the first reading of an ordinance to annex 1795 Campbellsville Highway.
- The council approved the re-appointment of Bob Bliss to the Marion/Washington County Airport Board.
- The council discussed the possibility of tearing down and cleaning up some nuisance properties in the city, but before the council makes a decision, city officials asked Building Inspector John Thompson to get estimates on how much that may cost.
- The council also recognized Christine Mattingly, who won the 2011 Kentucky Junior Miss competition. The city will be putting up signs saying it is the home of Kentucky's Junior Miss. Mattingly will be competing in the America's Junior Miss contest June 23-25 in Mobile, Ala.