Jeff council ready to spend $250K on downtown…

…but  reduces funding to Chamber, thwarting efforts to attract visitors and their dollars

The Jefferson city council at its regular meeting Tuesday will hold a public hearing on its intention to apply for a Community Development Block Grant for improvements to building facades in the historic downtown district. The council has already approved $250,000 as its share of the $1 million project.

Tuesday night’s agenda includes four items related to the CDBG application.

The agenda does not include a reconsideration requested by the Greene County Chamber of Commerce of the policy for the use of hotel/motel tax proceeds. The policy as it was approved at the Jan. 12 meeting puts in jeopardy the Chamber’s ability to promote tourism and bring outside dollars into the downtown businesses.

The hotel/motel tax use policy was approved after the council was alerted by Chamber treasurer Nikki Uebel that the committee recommending the policy would not receive complete information on the Chamber’s tourism budget until Jan. 15.

She and the Chamber’s accountant had tried unsuccessfully to schedule a meeting with city officials to share budget figures prior to the council meeting. That budget totals $60,000, including $20,000 for the Welcome Center.

Uebel told the council that the Chamber’s lending institution had said that without a guarantee of $60,000 in hotel/motel tax funds, further development of the Welcome Center would need to be put “on hold.” The bank would not approve a construction loan to finish the interior of the building.

The policy approved provides $30,000 per year to the Chamber for the promotion and encouragement of tourism and convention business in Jefferson. That amount is a cut in funding, as the Chamber has received an average of $37,716 from hotel/motel tax funds over the past five years, Uebel said.

The new policy provides another $20,000 per year for principal and interest payments and a small portion of the operating costs for the Welcome Center located within the Thomas Jefferson Gardens.

Total hotel/motel tax revenues are expected to exceed $80,000 per year. The remaining funds will be available to qualified organizations through an application process.

That total guaranteed to the Chamber – $50,000 –  is $10,000 short of a viable budget, according to the lending institution.

Council member Gary Von Ahsen questioned if there would be an advantage to waiting until after the Jan. 15 meeting and verified that the $30,000 could be changed after the meeting. He was told by mayor Craig Berry that the amount could be changed at the discretion of the council.

Uebel, Chamber accountant Linda Schmitt, Chamber president Omega Sang and Chamber tourism and events coordinator Angie Pedersen met Jan. 15 with Berry, council members Lisa Jaskey and Dave Sloan, city clerk Diane Kennedy and city attorney Bob Scharzkopf to present and justify the Chamber’s tourism budget. It was the same budget determined by the lending institution as needing $60,000 to be viable. According to Uebel,  all those at the meeting knew that without the full amount the Chamber would not be able to proceed with the Welcome Center.

No decision was made at that time. After the agenda for the Jan. 26 meeting was posted GreeneCountyNewsOnline publisher Tori Riley inquired from city administrator Mike Palmer if a decision on the request for the additional $10,000 had been made or if it was pending. Palmer replied that the committee decided not to amend the policy with the additional money.

The banker involved in the project told the Chamber board in December that if the city council would not guarantee $40,000 for tourism promotion and $20,000 for the Welcome Center, “you will have to cut services and expenses relating to tourism and concentrate only on the promotion of your membership, hoping that other organizations will pick up the tourism opportunities within their budget. The further development of the Welcome Center will need to be put on hold.”

The number of planned tours to Jefferson increased by more than six times in 2015 compared to 2014 due in large part to the Chamber actively promoting tourism. That effort may be sharply curtailed and the Welcome Center may not be completed under the policy approved by the council.

The hotel/motel tax is a 7 percent tax on lodging approved by Jefferson voters, with 80 percent earmarked for the promotion of tourism and convention business in Jefferson and 20 percent for recreation. The original ballot language specified the Chamber as the recipient of the tourism portion.

The Chamber board has maintained for the past year that the Chamber is entitled to the entire 80 percent, but yielded that position in an effort to break the impasse that has stalled the Welcome Center project. No work has been done on the Welcome Center since the exterior was completed in the summer of 2014.

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