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Following a tense and heated tourism meeting Monday, Oct. 4, Commissioner Kenny Marrett decided to resign.
"Tourism is on a path of destruction and I don't want to be a part of it," Marrett said during a telephone interview Wednesday morning.
Tuesday of last week, Marrett sent a notice of his resignation to Lebanon Mayor Gary Crenshaw who appointed him to the commission in June. Crenshaw said Marrett's resignation was "a bit of a surprise" and he hasn't decided who will replace him.
According to Chris Hamilton, executive director of the Lebanon Tourist and Convention Commission, Marrett's claim that tourism is on a "path to destruction" couldn't be further from the truth.
"It's unfortunate that Kenny would make such an outlandish remark when he is well aware of data that shows the complete opposite," Hamilton said in email to the Enterprise. "Restaurant business in Lebanon has grown by $4 million, lodging business has grown by $390,000 and total economic impact figures for tourism have grown $5.7 million since the commission began in 2003. We currently show growth of 26.9 percent this fiscal year compared to the same period in FY 2009-10 with 20.3 percent growth in restaurant business and 42.3 percent growth in lodging business. I can't imagine why Kenny would want to intentionally mislead the public. He has all the data and much of it has been publicized by local media over time."
Marrett has been at odds with Hamilton and the Lebanon Tourist Convention and Commission for some time now. In March, Marrett discussed his concerns with the commission and Hamilton during the commission's regular monthly meeting.
"I support tourism. I want tourism. I've worked to attract tourism," Marrett said during the March 8 meeting. "But during all the talk and discussions on whether to establish a commission or not ... all of the hopes of what a commission was going to do for us, it doesn't seem like I'm really seeing that."
However, Marrett's true frustration stems from his dissatisfaction that Hamilton and the commission didn't promote the Main Street Committee's Dickens Christmas event along with the Heart of Kentucky Holiday Festival last year. From 2005 to 2008, Dickens was a part of the holiday festival. But, the Main Street Committee decided to move Dickens back to the weekend immediately following Thanksgiving last year. With the change, Dickens was no longer a part of the Heart of Kentucky Holiday Festival, which includes events in Marion and Washington counties, and it wasn't included in promotional materials and advertisements.
Marrett, who is a member of the Main Street Committee, has said on numerous occasions that his frustrations concerning the Dickens Christmas celebration not being promoted by the tourism commission is the sole reason he wanted to be appointed to the commission in the first place. However, since being appointed to the commission, Marrett has brought up additional concerns and complaints. For one, Marrett disagrees with the commission's marketing strategy, which he discussed during the Oct. 4 meeting.
For example, Marrett doesn't understand why the commission spends money to promote the Great Outhouse Blow at Penn's Store, which is located near Gravel Switch.
"There is no guarantee that anybody that comes to this will even come through Lebanon," Marrett said.
Marrett said he couldn't understand why, if the commission is going to spend money to advertise events, such as the Outhouse Blowout, which is not even in the City of Lebanon, why it couldn't also promote Dickens Christmas.
"The historic Penn's Store is a historically-renowned tourist attraction and Dickens Christmas isn't," Hamilton said.
However, Marrett disagreed.
"But, Dickens Christmas is in Lebanon," he said. "I have to go on record that I disagree with that marketing strategy.‚Äù
On the subject of tourism marketing, Marrett also wanted to know what kind of "return" the commission got from its advertising.
"What I want do know is, whenever we spend these advertising dollars, how many hotel rooms and how many restaurants did we put people in?" he said.
According to Hamilton, each month the commission reviews restaurant and hotel tax revenue, which gives them an idea of the kind of impact tourism is having in the area, but the real picture comes at the end of the year.
"If our dollars keep increasing and our economic impact keeps increasing, that means we're doing something right," Hamilton said.
Web site hits are also another measurement of tourism's impact, and those continue to increase.
"That's what we want," Hamilton said. "For people to look at Lebanon as a destination."
According to Hamilton, the No. 1 responsibility of a tourism bureau is marketing and promotion, period.
"We can not promote Lebanon as a destination if we do not let people know we exist and educate them about reasons to visit," he said. Marrett says Lebanon needs more attractions...
According to Marrett, Lebanon needs more attractions to promote, and the commission should be working to develop those attractions.
"I've heard talk of a rock-n-roll museum. I like that idea," Marrett said during the Oct. 4 meeting.
Hamilton said he would love to see a proposal for a rock-n-roll museum, but the commission would not be the entity to develop the museum itself. Rather, the commission could possibly help an entrepreneur with parts of the project. However, Marrett said he didn't understand why the commission couldn't develop the museum itself, and possibly partner with the City of Lebanon on the project.
According to Tourism Commissioner David Winebrenner Jr., there are significant restrictions regarding what tourism commissions can do in terms of "bricks and mortar." And those restrictions exist for a reason.
"The auditors would want to see significant restrictions. They don't want us building bridges and sidewalks," Winebrenner said.
Tourism Commissioner Dan Lawson said those restrictions prevent the tourism commission from becoming a "slush fund for the county or city."
"So, we're going to continue to advertise things outside of this community... instead of build attractions in Lebanon?" Marrett asked his fellow commissioners.
Hamilton quickly responded.
"What we're going to do is we're going to continue to grow the economic impact of this organization. And we're going to do that in any way that works," Hamilton said.
According to Hamilton, tourism's economic impact numbers have gone up basically every year, which shows that something is working.
"We dipped one percent during the worst economic times of our life," he said.
According to Tourism Commissioner Jim Richardson, the results from the past seven years speak for themselves.
"We've spent virtually seven years here, in my opinion, doing exactly the right thing," he said. "And watching the results reported back to us every year... Lodging sales are increasing and restaurants sales are increasing and that's precisely what we should be doing."
Marrett said he didn't believe that to be the case.
"I don't know that that's entirely true," he said. "I haven't seen a lot of growth within the past five years."
However, local restaurant and hotel room tax revenue continues to increase, Hamilton said. In fact, in September the revenue exceeded the commission's budgeted numbers (which were already inflated) by $5,000, he said.
With that said, Marrett said he still believes the commission should take a more active role in developing attractions in Lebanon. He used Ruley's Light Show in St. Francis as an example.
"We are always spending money to advertise Ruley's light show and that's not even in Lebanon. We need to develop a Ruley's light show in Lebanon," Marrett said.
According to Winebrenner, the commission's purchase of snowflake lights, which he voted against, should be a great start to a light show.
"We ought to have a huge Christmas this year because we've invested $15,000 in snowflake lights. So it should be phenomenal," Winebrenner said.
Marrett corrected Winebrenner, stating that the snowflake lights were $10,500, and that he believed they were a good investment.
"When people see those lights hanging up there they are going to think, 'These people here have got their act together. They're proud of their community. And that's great, I'd like to come back.' So, the lights were a good investment," Marrett said.
Considering the price, Winebrenner said he hopes Marrett is correct.
"Let's hope so because they're pretty expensive. So, we'll see," Winebrenner said.
In addition to the snowflake lights, Hamilton said the commission has spent a great deal of money on capital projects.
"We consider all proposals for events and capital projects and look forward to seeing more," Hamilton said. "We have certainly been committed to the development of Lebanon attractions as we are able by law. We have spent a quarter of a million dollars on capital projects such as Centre Square, particularly Angelic Hall, the disc golf course, the downtown pavilion, downtown enhancements such as the snowflake lights, Christmas in the Park and in Lebanon event development. We still believe in the need for the arena and fairgrounds development project and would still participate in it."
And, in response to Marrett's claim that the commission promotes too many events that are outside of Lebanon, Hamilton said those events actually entice visitors to Lebanon.
"When appropriate, we join forces with area attractions and organizations to lure visitor traffic and money to Lebanon," he said. "Some of our regional projects and attractions outside city limits are some of our most effective tools, such as Maker's Mark Distillery, Historic Penn's Store, the Bourbon Country initiative, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the John Hunt Morgan Heritage Trail, Kentucky's Derby Region, the Central Kentucky Agritourism Association and others, all of which we have invested money in to help achieve our goals."
Spending money ethically and legally has also created disagreements among Marrett, Hamilton and the tourism commission.
One of those disagreements involved the Little League State Championship, which will be held at Graham Memorial Park next year. The Little League State Tournament Committee approached the tourism commission and made a request for money to help pay bills associated with the tournament. The tournament, which has already been secured for 2011, will not be an annual event, according to Hamilton. There is also no guarantee that it will be back again. So, if the commission had granted the committee its request, it would have been a donation rather than an investment, and the commission can't give donations, Hamilton said.
"We invest in events to get them here or help get them started so they can raise their own funds thereafter and we can move on to other projects," Hamilton wrote via email. "The tournament was secured independently and did not need tourism funds to get it. Had the committee needed a bid fee to get the tournament, for example, then we would have been able to participate. But we can not donate money to it after the fact."
Hamilton said he and the commission appreciates the work of the Little League State Championship Committee, and will find other ways to promote the tournament and help it be a successful event.
"Many on that committee are some of my best friends and I will be working at the tournament as a volunteer as I have with other Little League initiatives for many years," Hamilton said. "But the bureau has to be above reproach. We can not donate money to a local event just because we appreciate the work and admire the people doing it. That would not be compliant with tourism law and principles."
However, Marrett believes the commission should give actual funds toward the event.
"For us not to participate with dollars in that, I don't agree with," Marrett said.
More tourism talk...
After resigning from his position as tourism commissioner last week, Marrett went on to say that the people of this community were "lied to" when the tourism tax was first presented.
"It may not have been intentional, but they were still misled," he said.
Hamilton said, again, Marrett's remarks are totally off base.
"That is yet another unfortunate inflammatory remark," Hamilton said. "I was chair of the chamber of commerce tourism committee and I also covered extensively the creation of the commission and the discussions surrounding it as a newspaper reporter. Tourism was touted as an economic development engine that would improve economic conditions and quality of life here, bring back money that was leaving Lebanon in factory payroll and enhance Lebanon's image and notoriety. We have done just that. In fact, we've done it so well that we have been held up as an example of what can be accomplished at industry conferences and we are considered one of the more successful commissions in the state."
Marrett said he's tired of being in a constant fight with the commission, which is why he resigned.
"I totally disagree with their beliefs," he said.
Marrett's brief presence on the tourism commission was just as frustrating for the commission as a whole, Hamilton said.
"In his mere three months as a commissioner, Kenny refused to accept the legal and ethical implications of spending tourism tax dollars on initiatives that are not justifiable tourism expenditures," Hamilton wrote in an email. "It was frustrating for everyone, particular commissioners who have years of experience and the executive director, who is the only certified tourism professional in the room."
Carlotta Brussell, chairwoman of the tourism commission, said, while she understands that not everyone will always agree, she believes the commission is doing its job.
"We understand there will always be differences in opinions," she wrote in an email to the Enterprise. "Since the inception of the tourism commission, our commissioners have strived to stay focused and maintain the mission of our organization to deliver a positive economic impact to Lebanon and surrounding areas. We definitely believe the Lebanon Tourist and Convention Commission is on a very positive course, and our financial information bears this out."
According to Hamilton, Brussell and her fellow tourism commissioners volunteer their time for the betterment of the community and don't deserve to be attacked, like they have been in recent months.
"The tourism commission is also a volunteer board," Hamilton said. "Its members are not paid a penny, they put in many hours, take off work with no reimbursement, get confronted with disheartening attacks and accusations such as the ones we are dealing with now and, still, they continue to give their time and energy to do good work in their community."