No decision made on Welcome Center funding
By REBECCA MCKINSEY
Jefferson has big expectations for tourism in the coming years.
The casino, a new hotel, Hy-Vee, McFarland Clinic, the bike trail — all have been trumpeted as harbingers of economic development and tourism in Jefferson and Greene County.
The Greene County Chamber of Commerce is hoping to accompany that push with a new Welcome Center in downtown Jefferson that would provide tourism information and services about the city and county to visitors.
Now, the Chamber and city have come to a head about how the center will be funded and run, with the use of the city’s hotel/motel tax at the fore.
The Chamber has been planning for a Welcome Center for several years.
It entered into a 20-year lease for the downtown building it plans to use for the center. It planned a four-phase project that incorporated renovating the outside of the building, updating its interior, decorating it and, down the road, incorporating aspects of the county’s history into the building.
The first phase is complete. Grants and a loan of about $50,000 helped pay to renovate the building’s outside.
Speaking Tuesday to city council, Chamber President Ben Yoder estimated the indoors renovation would cost more than $150,000.
The Chamber is looking at a second loan for the indoors renovation and approached the city about paying the principle and interest on the loans, Mayor Craig Berry said.
The Welcome Center’s downtown location is important to the city’s preservation of its historic square, one of Main Street’s main goals, Yoder said.
“The building is on the Square,” he said. “The preservation of that building is in the spirit of Main Street.”
He said that although he has not talked to other cities about how they run their welcome centers, he has visited several of the centers in other communities.
One of the center’s perks would be its offering of public restrooms for visitors coming through town, Yoder said.
And, he added, it’s important to look down the road at the center’s long-term benefits.
“The question I ask the Chamber, myself and others about this project is simply this — do we believe we are involved in something bigger than we see?” he said.
As the Chamber looks at completing the center, the hotel/motel tax plays a key role.
Every time someone stays in a hotel or motel room, a portion of the rate paid comes back to the city, Berry said. For more than 10 years, the city has received that tax, which it currently splits into two funds.
Right now, 80 percent of the hotel/motel tax goes to the Chamber each year for “promotion and encouragement of tourism and convention business,” Berry said. The remaining 20 percent goes to the Park and Recreation department.
In 2014, the hotel/motel tax in Jefferson was just less than $37,000, sending just under $30,000 to the Chamber, Berry said.
With Cobblestone Hotels opening a facility in Jefferson, the hotel/motel tax is expected to triple, approaching $100,000 each year.
The ordinance allows for a simple resolution from city council to change how the hotel/motel tax is spent, Berry said.
As other needs arise, including updating the city’s recreation building and swimming pool, there has been some talk about re-allocating the hotel/motel tax. The Chamber hoped to secure its 80 percent take in preparation for the Welcome Center — and, down the road, to fund salaries for two positions at the center, a tourism and events manager and an administrative assistant.
Yoder told the council that the Chamber has not yet written job descriptions for the positions, citing his desire to know if it would be possible to fund them first.
However, Berry and the council members agreed, that is the roadblock in the conversation with Chamber — lack of information.
The city does not want to make a funding decision without receiving more details about the Welcome Center, how it will run, how much it will cost and what it will accomplish for the city and county.
“For us to go to the extent of using all these hotel/motel taxes for these positions and this building, they have to prove to me that it’s going to go (well),” Berry said. “What if two years down the road, we find out it’s a black hole that we keep throwing money into, and we have to close it?”
Another question is how much the Welcome Center would promote the county, rather than just Jefferson.
If that’s the case, council members argued, other cities and the county should contribute to the center as well. The Greene County Development Corp., Grow Greene County and other county entities should be involved, they said.
Councilwoman Lisa Jaskey noted at Tuesday’s meeting that she had heard welcome centers haven’t had the desired effect in other cities.
But promoting tourism is important in Jefferson and Greene County, she said. She proposed the creation of an entirely new 501(c)(3) organization that solely handles tourism in the county, and allowing that entity to run the Welcome Center.
“Personally, I’d have an easier time with allocating the hotel/motel tax to a stand-alone organization that strictly did tourism,” she said. “That’s what the hotel/motel tax is supposed to be for. I think it would create a lot of transparency, and there would be no question that money going to that bureau is going to be used for that purpose.”
Councilwoman Shannon Black was absent from the meeting, and council members suggested putting the topic on the agenda for its next meeting, rather than making a decision without a full council present.
However the center is funded, the Chamber hopes to use it to tell people that Jefferson has more to offer than the casino.
“That’s everyone’s passion — whether GCDC, Main Street, Chamber, Rotary, Kiwanis — to bring people downtown,” Yoder said. “We all share a responsibility to make it happen.”