A Welcome Center and the future of tourism topic at council meeting

Chamber again seeks okay to use hotel/motel tax for loan payments

Greene County Chamber president Ben Yoder and members of the Chamber board of directors will be at the Jefferson city council meeting Jan. 13 to ask again for support for the Welcome Center on the southeast corner of the courthouse square, surrounded by the Thomas Jefferson Gardens.

Yoder met with the council at its only December meeting to present a budget for operating the Welcome Center. Efforts are under way to raise $175,000 to finish interior work at the building, but to have the work done in time for the building to be open next summer, the Chamber needs to borrow money in advance of funds coming in. The proposed operating budget for the Welcome Center calls for virtually all expenses, including principal and interest payments on the bank loan, to be paid by the Chamber’s share of the voter approved 7 percent hotel/motel tax. Yoder asked the council to affirm that principal and interest would be an allowed tourism expense.

The council did not give affirmation, but said it would consider the matter at a meeting at which all members were present. Shannon Black was not at the Dec. 9 meeting.

Council member Lisa Jaskey said she would prefer to see a new entity established for the sole purpose of promoting tourism, with the hotel/motel tax revenue going through the new group. Council member Gary Von Ahsen said he wasn’t against Yoder’s proposed use of funds for a loan payment, but he wasn’t in favor of it either.

According to Yoder, promoting tourism has been a Chamber priority for many years. Putting the Bell Tower Festival under the Chamber’s umbrella is just one example of the Chamber working to attract visitors.

The Welcome Center will provide much-needed public restrooms in the downtown area. It will be a first stop for visitors to Greene County, and be a place where they will be greeted by friendly, knowledgeable staff that can provide information about the attractions and businesses in Jefferson and in the county.

Tourism has grown in the county in recent years, Yoder, said, with the Raccoon River Valley Trail, canoeing on the Raccoon River, and destinations like the Bell Tower and RVP~1875 leading the way. Wild Rose Jefferson will add another local destination. “It’s the Chamber that has been here from the start, and we’re excited to collaborate with other groups to help tourism flourish,” Yoder said.

The Chamber has been involved with the Welcome Center from the beginning, with the first meeting of the Chamber and the Thomas Jefferson Gardens (TJG) board in early January, 2013. The next month, the Chamber made a commitment to occupy the building, which at that time housed Kingsgate Insurance. This commitment is demonstrated by a 20-year lease with the TJG board.

The Chamber has worked collaboratively with the TJG board and Jefferson Matters: Main Street throughout the process, Yoder said. Jefferson Matters submitted a large Challenge grant to cover most of the cost of renovating the building. That grant was not funded, but the Chamber did receive $14,800 from the Greene County Community Foundation for exterior work. The TJG board allocated $15,000 for roof work. The Chamber has already borrowed about $55,000 to complete the exterior work, with payments on the loan coming from the Chamber’s general fund. The work was approved by the TJG board, and the floor plan of the interior will need to be approved also.

The goal of the current fundraising is $175,000 to complete interior renovation and installing a Federalist décor.

The ordinance enacting the hotel/motel tax specifies that the revenue must be spent to promote tourism in Jefferson, with the Chamber receiving 80 percent of the total. The funds are administered by the city. The Chamber pays qualified expenses (advertising and staff time spent on tourism) and is reimbursed by the city. Verification that principal and interest will be reimbursed is needed before the Chamber can assume more debt for the building.

“The Chamber wants to see the project move forward to complete the renovation of the Welcome Center,” Yoder said.

According to him, the Chamber is willing to form a task force and look at how the tourism industry would best be served in Jefferson. The task force would include board members from Greene County Development Corporation, Jefferson Matters: Main Street and the Chamber, along with other interested people. The task force would discuss how and what the structure should be and who should lead the tourism industry, if not the Chamber.

”This task force committee work would take time to formulate, so we are asking the city council to continue to allow the use of the already approved hotel/motel tax proceeds to fund tourism expenses, with the Welcome Center serving as the central location, organizing and promoting tourism throughout Greene County and in the city of Jefferson. We want to have the majority of improvements completed by this summer,” Yoder said.

“The project is not about me. It is about our community and promoting the assets of our community”, Yoder said. “The Chamber desires for this to be a collaborative project. The Chamber is willing to take the lead and account for the use of these proceeds and the activity of the Welcome Center. The Chamber believes in this vision and we are asking the community to help support this vision.”

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