Jeff council okays use of hotel/motel tax for Welcome Center

Phase II construction on the interior can now move forward

After more than an hour of discussion the Jefferson city council approved at its regular meeting Tuesday using hotel/motel tax revenues to pay principal and interest on a construction loan, utilities and insurance during the interior construction phase of the new Welcome Center inside the Thomas Jefferson Gardens.

Greene County Chamber and Development Ben Yoder in December asked the council to affirm those payments would be allowed as tourism expenses in order to secure a construction loan. Fundraising for the Welcome Center is under way, but delaying the project until funds are in hand would mean the Welcome Center would not be open for the summer of 2015.

Council member Lisa Jaskey was the most vocally skeptical of the plan in December, but after Yoder provided assurances she requested, Jaskey became a champion of the Welcome Center cause.

In December, Jaskey had suggested a lack of transparency in how the Chamber uses its share of hotel/motel tax funds (earmarked by city ordinance to promote tourism) and that the Chamber was possibly not the best group to build a local tourism industry.

In a letter to the council Jan. 9, Yoder committed the Chamber to provide quarterly financial reports of the Welcome Center until it is fully operational.

He also volunteered the Chamber to organize a tourism task force with board members representing the Thomas Jefferson Gardens, Greene County Development Corporation, Jefferson Matters: Main Street, the Lincoln Highway Association, the Historical Society, the Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs and the Chamber to discuss how best to structure the promotion of tourism in Jefferson and Greene County. The Chamber would follow the recommendations of the task force.

“Should the city council decide not to allow hotel/motel tax proceeds to fund the Welcome Center as proposed by the Chamber, please know the Chamber is willing to step aside and provide support to an alternative tourism structure,” Yoder wrote.

By some clerical confusion, Jaskey was the only council member to see the letter prior to the meeting.

Jaskey said Tuesday that since Yoder’s December presentation, the council “may have gotten bogged down a bit on the words ‘welcome center.’ Traditionally across the state, welcome centers have not been doing so well because they’ve been following a traditional model, but Greene County, as least since I’ve been here, has never been one to follow the crowd. We’ve been leaders, we’ve been innovators, and we’ve proven over and over that if we have a project the community works together on, we can accomplish great things.”

She lobbied the council, saying Yoder had provided the assurances the council asked for. Council members Gary Von Ahsen, Larry Teeples, Shannon Black and Harry Ahrenholtz all suggested that allowing funds to go toward a welcome center was a large step they were hesitant to take without more financial information. “This is a long term commitment. You want to get it right when you step out of the gate,” Ahrenholtz said.

They preferred to wait until after the task force completed its work to make a decision about allowable expenses for the Welcome Center.

Jaskey then proposed approving the Chamber’s request for the next six months so that construction can begin, and said she believes strongly enough in the project that she has personally pledged $5,000 in the fundraising drive. “We’ll gain nothing if we do nothing,” Jaskey said.

At that point, mayor Craig Berry asked city clerk Diane Kennedy how much hotel/motel tax revenue the city has available right now. After Kennedy answered that there is $20,000 in the fund, with no large outstanding payments pending, Berry turned the corner on the discussion. “There’s $20,000 in the account. If they (the Chamber) present us a bill for $10,000 for tourism, and it’s utilized by their board for this building, it’s no different than what we’re doing now,” Berry said. “What’s gotten convoluted is the future. That’s where most of the problems the council is coming up with are – ‘what’s going to happen in the future?’ Well, we can’t tell what’s going to happen in the future. So, as far as I’m concerned, if they send us a bill and it’s for the building, it’s for tourism.”

Berry said the task force would be called together and would work on a budget, along with other things. “That will show a direction that tourism ought to go for Jefferson and for anyone who wants to participate in it outside the city limits. We’re not committing any money to it. We’re not committing $80,000 (80 percent of the anticipated hotel/motel tax revenue after Wild Rose Jefferson is in operation). They’ll have what they have,” he said, and pointed out that the large dollars won’t be available until the summer of 2016.

No vote was taken. Council members ended the discussion. Yoder’s letter promised the task force would report to the council within 90 days.  ~by Victoria Riley

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