Tourism offices around the region and the nation are struggling to make payroll and pay bills in recent months because of lower revenues and dwindling innkeepers taxes generated from hotel stays, all caused by the many cancellations of events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And Madison, Ind.’s tourism bureau, VisitMadison Inc., is no exception.
Add to that the recent mass resignations for various reasons in August of seven board members serving on either the VisitMadison Inc. tourism board or the Jefferson County Board of Tourism (JCBT). Two of those resigning members had served on both boards simultaneously.
Jefferson County Board of Tourism members who resigned:
Robert Little, president
Tara Cox, vice president
Renie Stephens, treasurer
Jefferson County Board of Tourism members (Including their appointing agencies):
David Bremer, president (County Commission)
Curt Chatham, vice president (City Council)
Tami Hagemier, treasurer (City Council-Tourism)
Wendy Lawson, secretary (Chamber of Commerce)
Nancy Crisp (County-Lodging)
Todd Boone (City Council-Lodging)
Trevor Crafton (Mayor’s Appointment)
VisitMadison Inc. members who resigned:
Cara Fox, president
Renie Stephens, treasurer
VisitMadison Inc. Board
(Including their appointing agencies)
Lucy Dattilo, president (City Council)
Joe Craig, vice president (County Council)
Hannah Fagen, secretary/treasurer (City of Madison)
Jeff Frazier (Ribberfest)
Kara Hinze (Chautauqua)
Cari Morrison (Chamber of Commerce)
Jenny Eggenspiller (At Large)
(Two more At Large vacancies exist that are to be selected by the VisitMadison Inc. board)
Since that time, several new board members have been appointed by various agencies to fill vacant seats on each board. But two at-large seats remain vacant on the VisitMadison Inc. board.
The JCBT board exists by state statute to receive the monthly innkeepers taxes, which are then distributed to various organizations for tourism-related activities. The bulk of the innkeepers tax money is distributed to VisitMadison Inc. each year to cover its operational budget, including payroll, and to fund marketing.
But ever since late summer, after the forced cancellation of two of its major festivals – Ribberfest and the Chautauqua Festival of Art – VisitMadison Inc. has been cutting back on nonessential expenses in an effort to tighten its belt during these difficult times, according to board president Lucy Dattilo. In an Oct. 30 interview, she described how these budget cutting measures have managed to reduce its losses from 50-70 percent it was experiencing in late summer to 41 percent now – well below the state average of 49 percent. The losses were attributed to both the loss of revenue from holding festivals and the decline in innkeeper’s taxes due to the pandemic.
“We looked at things like the cleaning service, paid lunches and travel,” she said. “The staff is now cleaning the office themselves and finding ways to cut back.”
Dattilo served on the tourism board many years ago while operating a retail business on Main Street in Madison. She closed the store in 2016 and retired. But last year, she ran and was elected to serve on the Madison City Council. Then last March, she was asked to serve on the VisitMadison Inc. board, and she accepted. In August, in the wake of the mass resignations, she was elected as the board president and has since been leading the reconstruction effort of the board.
“I was originally planning to just serve and lay low,” she said. “But when crisis happens, somebody has got to step up, so when I was nominated to serve as president, I accepted. And although all of those sudden resignations may not have looked good, I think sometimes change is good. So we are moving forward and trying to fill our vacant board seats with good people and try to unify our working relationship with the JCBT because we need to work together.”
But unifying that relationship meant severing ties to avoid what Dattilo saw as a conflict of interests, she said. So last month, Dattilo urged the VisitMadison Inc. board to vote to change the bylaws to reduce the number of board seats from 11 to nine by cutting the two seats held by JCBT members. The board voted to do this during a special meeting held in mid October. “We just felt there was too much conflict and drama, and we don’t need drama.
And especially having the same person serving as treasurer for both boards was a problem.”
So now the VisitMadison Inc. board consists of six former members – Dattilo and Joe Craig (vice president), Hannah Fagen (secretary), Kara Hinze (Chautauqua representative) and Jeff Frazier (Ribberfest representative) and Cara Morrison – plus recently added new member Jenny Eggenspiller. Two seats remain vacant.
Meantime, VisitMadison Inc. is reeling from a move by the JCBT on Oct. 26 to place a moratorium on all future marketing expenditures right before the start of the holiday season, further diminishing its ability to attract visitors and holiday shoppers. In addition, the board placed a hold on paying for VisitMadison Inc.’s outstanding marketing bills until a work session is held Nov. 9 to discuss a strategy to control costs.
At the Oct. 26 VisitMadison Inc. board meeting, meanwhile, marketing director Sarah Prasil reported that she still had $46,000 left over in her 2020 marketing budget and was hoping to carry it over into 2021. Dattilo agreed, saying, “If you can use the 2020 money in 2021, you can hit it hard for 2021.”
During the Oct. 26 JCBT meeting that aired on Madison TV15, board secretary Tami Hagemier presented the results of her research into auditor’s reports and bank accounts from past boards, saying it showed about a 50 percent loss in total assets from Dec. 31, 2019, to now. After a record-setting year last year in innkeeper’s taxes, Madison suffered a loss of more than half this year, she said. Hagemier informed the board that it held $704,363 in total assets at the end of last year, but that amount had dropped to $363,393 for a loss of $340,969 to date.
Hagemier, who joined the board early this year as a city council appointee and became its secretary in September, urged the board to hold a work session to deal with the current state of finances. “I am hesitant to move forward without some very firm guidance from this board because where we are trending means we are not going to get better any time soon.”
With the exception of Curtis Chatham and Hagemier, the rest of the seven-member board is new following the August resignations. It now consists of county commissioner David Bramer (president), Chatham (vice president), Wendy Lawson (secretary), Hagemier (treasurer), Nancy Crisp and two recent city and mayor’s appointments, Todd Boone and Trevor Crafton.
In addition to halting marketing expenditures, the JCBT discussed and voted to curtail by one-third the quarterly amount granted to the VisitMadison Inc. board for its operational and payroll expenses from $78,000 to an amount “up to $25,000” in order to make its Oct. 1 payroll, then pay the rest later.
Near the end of the JCBT meeting, Fagen, representing the city, asked the board for $15,000 to pay for holiday lights in an effort to attract visitors and shoppers to downtown in hopes of making up for some of the recent losses in revenue. Fagen said the city was soliciting private donations to help in the effort. Chatham and Hagemier had both sponsored the event. And the committee organizing the annual Wonderland in the Park holiday decorations at Madison Bicentennial Park has contributed $2,000 for the lights. Despite having just made significant cuts or holds on marketing spending, some board members, including Chatham, advocated for funding the lights. However, after some disagreement among the members, the board voted down the proposal to fund the lights.
“With a moratorium on paid advertising, we have to do something,” Hagemier said.
In addition to holding the upcoming Nov. 9 work session, the JCBT at its regular November meeting is scheduled to evaluate VisitMadison Inc.’s proposed budget for 2021 and must approved it by the end of the year.
• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at info@RoundAbout.bz.
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