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Tourism changes in the works

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Local groups to prepare suggestions for tourism commission

By Stephen Lega

The Lebanon Tourist and Convention Commission's next meeting is scheduled for May 9, but other local organizations will be working on ideas for the commission before then.

During its April 11 meeting, the Lebanon City Council voted to postpone a decision about the restaurant tax (which provides most of the funding for the tourism commission) and for the Marion County Chamber of Commerce, Marion County Economic Development, Lebanon Main Street Committee and the Centre Square Committee to come up with ideas for the tourism commission.

Marion County Economic Development Director Tom Lund, who is also a tourism commissioner, said he is drafting ideas that he will present to the Marion County Industrial Foundation for approval. He said the Industrial Foundation might meet this week.

However, Lund also said he presented a letter to Lebanon Mayor Gary Crenshaw a few months ago with some of his own ideas to improve tourism.

"I was of the opinion that we need to spend tourism dollars on a venue that will attract tourism to the community," Lund said.

He added that there are opportunities to work with Maker's Mark and with a micro-distillery that plans to open in Marion County this year. He also said the wildlife management area that opened last fall may provide an opportunity to work with the state to attract visitors to the county.

Lund said tourism needs to make sure it is getting a return on its investment.

"I guess that's why I've objected to the advertising out of state," he said.

Crenshaw said the letter he'd received from Lund was a letter offering to resign from the tourism commission along with some suggestions regarding tourism.

"I refused his offer to resign," Crenshaw said.

Lund said tourism wasn't going in the direction he thought it should when he sent his letter to the mayor. He added that he thought the commission might have been part of that problem by not providing direction and oversight.

"I thought if I was part of the problem, I'd be glad to resign," he said.

Crenshaw said he sat down with Lund and said he would prefer for Lund to continue working within the commission. Crenshaw compared the situation to his own work as mayor. He said he knows he has made mistakes and there are things he could do better, but he feels that gives him insight on how to improve. He added that he felt Lund recognized that some mistakes have been made, and Crenshaw said that insight would be beneficial to the commission as it makes changes.

While Lund remains a member of the commission, it has gone through multiple personnel changes within the past year.

City Councilman Kenny Marrett was appointed to fill a seat on the board last June, but he stepped down in October, citing concerns about how tourism was being handled. In November, long-time Commissioner Jim Richardson also stepped down saying he felt tourism was being attacked.

In March, new commissioners Brad Lanham and Dennis George filled the vacant seats on the board.

Lund said that things are improving with the commission, and that some of the issues that existed are getting solved.

"Tourism can be a useful tool," Lund said. "We just need to keep it on the right track."

At this point, the Lebanon Main Street Committee will be meeting this week, according Mary Lou Brock, the committee's manager. Marion County Chamber Executive Director Stacy Mattingly said the chamber board has not yet made any decisions regarding tourism, but the board is scheduled to meet in early May.

And Crenshaw, who is also chairman of the Centre Square Committee, said that committee has not yet met to discuss recommendations for tourism.

Commission's internal changes

On April 11, tourism Commissioner George and Commission Chairwoman Carlotta Brussell proposed some new goals for tourism to the Lebanon City Council. That  proposal included a rolling 90-day business plan, a review of any planned advertising, increasing efforts with local restaurants, working to bring more events to Centre Square and looking for ways to cut costs.

According to Tourism Executive Director Chris Hamilton, the commission's previous goal was to make Lebanon a destination for visitors. The tourism office did that by recruiting bus tours and conventions, creating getaway packages, attracting events and jump-starting others and promoting attractions in the area.

"The new goal narrows our focus to funding and promotion of local events and driving more local people into our restaurants and providing physical assistance to local groups," Hamilton wrote in an email to the Enterprise.

According to Hamilton, the tourism bureau has had the flexibility to pursue opportunities that could yield a large impact. The 90-day business plan will create a more structured work list for the tourism office and give the commission input on tourism plans three months in advance, he wrote.

The new plan may also affect marketing decisions, which have previously been made by the executive director.

"An advance review and approval process will limit our ability to get reduced rates and will put pressure on events we work with to have answers to our questions much quicker than they are used to," he wrote.

The commission's proposal also calls for working with the Centre Square Committee to book at least six events per year. Hamilton identified several events, including 14 in the past 16 months, that the commission recruited, jump-started or assisted that have taken place at Centre Square. He added that the Kentucky body of the National Baptist Convention of America will be meeting in Lebanon in June, and the tourism office is working on an effort to bring a day-long concert here this year.

With regard to local restaurants, Hamilton wrote that visitors to local events already dine here as well. He added that the commission has invested in events and  advised and provided resources for event planners, but it has avoided planning events itself because of the time involved.

"I can't fully predict the impact this new format will have," Hamilton wrote. "In the past, we learned that the time it takes for us to plan one event could be better used to recruit or assist a half-dozen others."

Going forward, the commission may also need to keep in mind how it is affected by state statutes. KRS 91A.350 reads that second through sixth-class cities (which would include Lebanon) may create tourism commissions "for the purpose of promoting and developing convention and tourist activities and facilities."

The law also reads that the commission can fund recreational activities or projects not related to tourism if those activities and projects were funded by the commission prior to July 13, 1990. Lebanon's tourism commission has existed since 2003.

Hamilton noted that the local ordinance reads that tourism funds can be used for acquisition, construction, operation and maintenance of facilities useful in the attraction and promotion of tourist and convention business.

"In other words, we can build the disc golf course to lure players and tournaments but we can't build the playground," Hamilton wrote.

He added that it's incumbent for the tourism commissioners to be careful that the commission does not step outside of the law, and he noted that Kay Berggren, the president and CEO of the Kentucky Travel Industry Association, reminded him that marketing is the tourism commission's No. 1 job. Tourism is the third-largest industry in the state, and locally it has an economic impact of $18.4 million in 2009 (the latest figures available).

"No other business in Lebanon, nor in any community, is doing the specific job that these taxes support - the attraction of visitors from out of town and, often, from out of state," Hamilton wrote.