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Downtown development a focus for upcoming year

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Commission has 2010-11 budget work session

By The Staff

The Lebanon Tourist and Convention Commission is planning for the 2010-11 fiscal year and its budget is "lean," according to Executive Director Chris Hamilton. But, even with a bare bones budget, Hamilton hopes to accomplish many of the commission's goals, including more downtown development.

"I think we've operated well lean in the past fiscal year," Hamilton said. "I think we've accomplished a lot of our goals... We've had some of our biggest achievements in the worst economy that we've had in my lifetime."

Hamilton and the tourism board of commissioners brainstormed during a budget work session recently and many revenue and expense items were discussed, including discussion regarding the delinquent accounts that are currently on the books. (See sidebar.) Hamilton believes all the accounts are collectible, but he is concerned with the collection efforts, which the commission pays the City of Lebanon to do. He said the commission's administrative fees to the city were practically doubled with the promise of better service and he's not seeing that just yet. Hamilton felt that the tourism commission could be more effective collecting the tax themselves, but the board did not agree and would like to see the city continue collecting the tax. Currently, the restaurant tax is under budget by $11,000, but approximately $7,500 hasn't been turned in, Hamilton said. In terms of the hotel tax, Hamilton is excited about the upcoming year because the tourism commission has sold The Hampton Inn out twice already with the Jets Over Kentucky event, which will be held in July, and the Bluegrass Austin-Healey Club's SpringThing rally in Lebanon, which will be held in May.

"I don't ever recall us selling the hotel out and now we're doing it twice this year," Hamilton said.

Another revenue item discussed was the creation of a "capital fund" that could be used for bigger projects in the future.

"If we're ever going to do one of these huge projects, we're going to have to start committing money to a capital fund each year so we'll have the money there to do it," Commissioner Jim Richardson said.

The board agreed and plans to begin devoting monies to that capital fund in the coming fiscal year.

One budget item that was questioned was the $85,000 devoted to marketing. Several commissioners, including Tom Lund and Nancy Higdon, have expressed concern about such a large amount of money being used for advertising and marketing. But, according to Hamilton, marketing is the No. 1 responsibility of a tourism bureau.

"It's the No. 1 job we have, marketing the community," Hamilton said.

Event support...

Lund suggested that maybe the commission consider using some of its funds to hire an event coordinator that could help plan and organize events, such as the Kentucky Bluegrass Music Kickoff. However, Chairman David Winebrenner voiced several concerns he had with the commission hiring such a coordinator.

"I'd have significant issues with that," Winebrenner said. "How do you then determine how much time that person spends on the bluegrass festival versus the cook-off, versus whatever? How would you allocate those resources?"

Instead of hiring an event coordinator, Commissioner Dan Lawson suggested paying for a consultant to come to Lebanon and have a seminar to help local entrepreneurs and groups organize their events more effectively. Lund took it one step further and said the commission could have a seminar twice a year and before people could receive funds from the commission for their events, the commission could make it mandatory that they attend one of the seminars. Hamilton said he would find out how much a consultant would cost. However, hosting seminars and educating people on planning events wouldn't save certain events that are struggling or change the perception of some community members who believe that the tourism commission should be the entity coordinating and orchestrating events, Hamilton said. Certain events will always need financial support from the tourism commission and will never be self-sustaining, according to Hamilton. Commissioner Lawson said that it's his belief that if the Kentucky Bluegrass Music Kickoff doesn't receive annual funding from the tourism commission that the event wouldn't be able to survive. And there are other events that are orchestrated by non-profit groups that are in the same boat, according to Hamilton. While he said he doesn't regret working with non-profit groups, Hamilton said their events are not the kinds of events that tourism should be financially supporting.

"I just want to remind you of one thing," Hamilton said. "Roger Brooks (of Destination Development) was very, very clear. He said not to work with non-profit organizations for the very reasons we are sitting here five years later and discussing it. Because they will always need money from you."

But Winebrenner and Hamilton both reiterated that the tourism's role is not to perpetually fund and coordinate events.

"Tourism bureaus are not event coordinators. We are a marketing agency, No. 1," Hamilton said. "That is our No. 1 responsibility - marking and promoting this community as a destination... We must make a sincere effort to get out of other people's events. We are a destination now and we need to be promoting, come to this destination. But to do that we have to start backing out of these thousands and thousands of commitments to these events."

Downtown development...

A commitment that Winebrenner did want to see in the budget, however, was some monies set aside for projects or partnerships that might arise with other organizations, such as the chamber of commerce or Main Street Committee. His fellow commissioners agreed.

However, one thing the tourism board did not agree on was the aesthetics of developing downtown. Hamilton discussed placing barrel planters downtown, but Lund and several of the other board members felt that they would be a nuisance.

"Barrel planters are maintenance nightmares," Lund said.

And while the commission didn't see eye to eye on the barrel planters, Hamilton said he would still like to find a way to "dress the downtown up with barrels."

"The barrels could be wonderful," he said. "The experience that we are creating with our work with Team Bourbon, The Bourbon Chase... we want to capitalize on that business, which is going to grow profoundly in the next few years."

Another aspect of downtown that Lund would like to see improve are the restaurants. He said many restaurants are struggling and asked if tourism could do anything to help.

"I don't want to cross the boundaries of the chamber of commerce but I wish there was some way we could help the restaurants in this community," he said. "I think they struggle."

According to Hamilton, he promotes local restaurants any time a visitor stays in Lebanon. Often times, a visitor purchases one of the tourism's packaged promotions, and visitors pay for their meals up front.

"We have been the restaurants' best friend," Hamilton said.

Salaries & benefits

In the proposed budget, a 3 percent increase was included for the tourism commission's staff of two. However, Commissioner Richardson said he believed, with the tough economy, a salary increase might not be appropriate.

"While I have probably been the biggest proponent of moving the salaries along, I'm going to talk out of the other side of my mouth this year," he said. "I know what we've done in our business and what a number of other businesses have done. It's been tough times... It ain't going to be the most favorite words you ever want to hear but I think it would be a good year for us as an organization to not do anything with the salaries. We're shouldering our part of tough times. It ain't fun to say. It ain't fun to get."

Winebrenner asked his fellow commissioners if, in lieu of a salary increase, they would be in favor of offering a bonus opportunity if certain goals are achieved. Winebrenner said he and Richardson would work together to develop some sort of incentive plan for the tourism commission staff.

Delinquent accounts As of April 22, the following restaurants are delinquent: 1. Arby's - 2 months 2. Big Jim's Steakhouse & Buffet - 7 months 3. Captain D's - 2 months 4. Cedarwood Restaurant - 2 months 5. El Rincon Michoacano - 1 month 6. Gold Star Buffet - 1 month 7. Henning's Restaurant - 3 months 8. Mac's Convenience (Circle K) - 1 month 9. Sam B's Town Express - 15 months 10. Subway - 4 months 11. Subway Wal-Mart - 3 months 12. The Java House, 2 months 13. The Oak Barrel - 1 month 14. TNT Barbecue - 1 month 15. Wendy's - 2 months 16. Willie A's - 2 months

17. Holly Hill Motel - 1 month