Century 21 RVR

Feeling the Heat

County tourism board agrees to fund VisitMadison Inc. through May

VMI Executive Director Tawana Thomas
laid off due to lack of funding


(March 2021)
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Don Ward

(March 2021) – As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its toll on tourism and innkeepers’ tax revenue collections in Jefferson County, Ind., the two tourism boards that have been at odds over funding for the past few months took one step closer to reconciliation on Feb. 22. The decision by the Jefferson County Board of Tourism (JCBT) to fund the tourism office operations and tourism marketing for the next three months came in the wake of the VisitMadison Inc. board announcing earlier in the day that it had laid off its executive director, Tawana Thomas, the previous Friday due to lack of money to pay her salary.
In recent months, the VMI staff has dwindled from nine to four, said board president Lucy Dattilo during the morning meeting of the VMI board, and one of those four – event coordinator Katie Burress – is on maternity leave. The layoffs included the cleaning staff and weekend part-time greeters. That leaves marketing director Sarah Prasil, bookkeeper Tiffini Poling and visitor services coordinator Holly Love. Dattilo said in the meeting that she hoped Thomas could return when money generated from innkeepers’ tax collections becomes available and then dispersed by the JCBT to VMI.
“It is with extreme sadness that we must take this action to preserve our organizations short-term future, but are hopeful this will only be temporary,” Dattilo said. “Tawana Thomas has been a true asset to this community, and since my onboarding this year, I have seen all the great things implemented during her tenure and a passion about tourism that matches none other I’ve met. We hope she will be back soon. Until then, we will try to muddle through without her and do more with less.”
The JCBT was established by state statue to receive innkeepers’ taxes and then disperse the money. In past years, the bulk of that money has been provided to the VMI board to pay salaries, operate the Lanier-Madison Visitors Center, plan and direct festivals and support the organizers of other events in the community.
But VMI is currently operating without a contract or an approved annual 2021 budget from the JCBT. VMI presented a scaled down budget back in December, but instead of receiving approval for an annual budget, as in past years, the six-member JCBT is moving slowly to only approve enough funding for a few months at a time, due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
In January, the JCBT approved funding for only January and February, with $28,232 for salaries and operations and $9,225 for marketing. At the Jan. 22 meeting, the JCBT agreed to fund VMI for the next three months, through May. The approved amounts were $42,348 for salaries and operations, and $27,675 for marketing. Each amount represented three months’ worth of VMI’s original scaled down original requests for operations ($169,392) and marketing ($110,700) for 2021. The marketing request was about half of last year’s budget.
But the decision for funding came after a two-hour long meeting that attracted a standing room only crowd of 20 people in the small commissioners’ conference room inside the Jefferson County Courthouse. The crowd included Madison City Council President Katie Rampy, councilman Jim Bartlett and Mayor Bob Courtney, as well as Madison Main Street Executive Director Austin Sims, Madison Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Emilee Roberts and a few tourism-related business owners.
Much of the meeting was consumed by discussions over how many Visitor Guides to print, given the uncertainty moving forward due to the pandemic. VMI mails on request the guides to visitors who request them – usually via email. But most are delivered to, or picked up by, local business owners who want to distribute them in their stores and lodging establishments. Prasil, who designs the annual guide, made a presentation about the dire situation of having had her marketing budget frozen last October by the JCBT and explained that it was getting late in the year to start her paid marketing efforts. She said those efforts would normally have been started late last year. And the timing to send the Visitors Guide was overdue.
Prasil reported that VMI had already received 1,100 requests from the public for a 2021 guide via mail, and that many of the 80 businesses that had contributed money to be featured in the guide were calling to see when they would be available.
Some JCBT board members had in recent meetings questioned the need for a printed guide and suggested that marketing efforts in the future be totally digital. But Prasil and JCBT member Nancy Crisp, who owns an AirBnB, argued that the guides are very popular among visitors, lodging establishments and local businesses.
She added that she is receiving requests for the guides from her regular customers. And she implored the board to get the VMI’s marketing efforts moving.
“Their marketing proposal was presented Dec. 18, and now we’re three months into the year… I don’t want to see Jefferson County suffer (because of a delay in paid marketing efforts),” Crisp said. “We need to get on the ball and get this ball rolling.”
VMI last year printed 65,000 of the guides, Prasil said. It was agreed last fall that number would be reduced to 40,000 for 2021. “Upon hearing the feedback in (the January JCBT) meeting, and with the requested February marketing plan, we reduced the print quantity to 25,000 with the request to re-evaluate the need for more mid-year,” Prasil said.
Asked how long the turnaround is for the guides to arrive from the time they are ordered, Prasil said three weeks.
After more discussion, JCBT members decided to hold another meeting within two weeks – on March 8 – to iron out the issues of a contract, a budget for VMI and how many Visitors Guides to print. “I do think we need to get the contract finalized, but it would be naive to just sign a budget for a year,” member Todd Boone said. He added that the JCBT would likely continue doing month-to-month funding throughout the year.

Getting the ball rolling

Crisp last month was voted to serve as the JCBT board’s treasurer after the previous treasurer, Tami Hagemier, was suspended by the Madison City Council, which appointed her following allegations of mishandling a state grant application process to award $250,000 to 12 local businesses late last year. A hearing on the matter has not yet been held.
Crisp asked the board why the $6,367 in unpaid 2020 bills, and that were approved during January’s meetings to be paid, had not yet been paid. She also noted that several innkeepers’ tax collections checks totaling $76,785 from December had not yet been deposited, with another $16,040 having arrived in late December to also be deposited – all totaling $92,825.
That generated a heated response from JCBT board president David Bramer, who said he had the checks and would deposit them soon. He also said he would instruct the county treasurer to issue the payments for the outstanding bills. Although serving as treasurer, Crisp is not authorized to write checks on behalf of the board because she has not completed the necessary training to be bonded for doing so.
At the end of the meeting, the board allowed for public remarks. Councilman Bartlett and Mayor Courtney took turns making passionate statements imploring the two boards to work together to get tourism marketing moving in the interest of the community and local businesses.
Bartlett said there needs to be a sense of urgency in the matter. He said that after a year of closures and cancellations due to COVID-19, “this could be a record year (in tourism) for Madison and Jefferson County, but we have to get our marketing rolling. There is a nationwide hunger by people to get out and do something.” Bartlett added that a sense of urgency is required in order to save and support the tourism trade, including local businesses and jobs.
Courtney said he was dismayed at the level of micro-management the JCBT was doing and would rather see it “focus more on the broader, strategic plan to get back to that $20 million-dollar economic impact back to Madison and Jefferson County that we enjoyed  pre-COVID.” He said he was hoping for a better report on the current status of funds in hand. He said he has heard from business owners who are concerned after watching the squabbling take place between the two tourism boards.
“I’m hearing anxiety from the business community that not enough is being done soon enough to overcome this impasse that exists the last many months between JCBT and VMI. So I’m here to encourage you to work through a really swift resolution.”
Courtney said that upon reviewing the annual budget request by VMI for $250,000 to $300,000 for the potential to generate $20 million in economic impact, “that seems like a very modest request.”
Courtney also said that while it is appropriate to debate and evaluate the decisions made and hold any agency accountable that receives money from JCBT, he added, “What I’m hearing and seeing, and what the community is seeing, is how negative this has become, we’ve got to overcome that. Otherwise, our tourism economy this year is going to really suffer.”
He recommended that the JCBT appropriate $250,000 for 2021 to plan and market events and sustain staff “and make the investment to get the engines back started to produce that $20 million in economic impact.”
Courtney urged the boards to resolve their differences and move forward quickly because of the competition with other communities to attract visitors and to take advantage of the future demand for travel in the wake of the pandemic. He also wants the boards to focus on attracting visitors to Madison “every day and every weekend of the year, and not just festival events. It’s a bit of a change in the culture here.”
At the end of the meeting, and after all discussion and public remarks had been made, the board voted to approve the funding amounts noted above for VMI through May.
Courtney urged the boards to resolve their differences and move forward quickly because of the competition with other communities to attract visitors and to take advantage of the future demand for travel in the wake of the pandemic. He also wants the boards to focus on attracting visitors to Madison “every day and every weekend of the year, and not just festival events. It’s a bit of a change in the culture here.”
At the end of the meeting, and after all discussion and public remarks had been made, the board voted to approve the funding amounts noted above for VMI through May.

* * *

•  In other news, Boone during the JCBT meeting said he was organizing a “tourism caucus” for sometime in March to bring representatives of the various Madison agencies together to review their individual missions and brainstorm ideas for working together as they move forward. These would include representatives from both tourism boards, the Madison Main Street Program, Madison Area Chamber of Commerce, Madison Area Arts Alliance and the Madison Music Movement.
“The idea is to recalibrate and find out who’s who and what we’re doing to see if there’s any overlap,” Boone said. “To look at how we can do better together.”
The half-day event would also include Danny Galvin, an experienced marketing professional and Madison native, and Michael Fortunato, a new Madison resident and nationally known consultant in economic and community development. The Arts Alliance’s Executive Director Kim Nyberg has agreed to help, he said.
After some discussion with board members, they agreed to plan the caucus for March 19. “It could be something we would extend past that and continue meeting,” Boone said.

•  Late in the meeting, Hagemier, who owns and operates Lanthier Winery with her husband, Chris Lanthier, told the board in open remarks that the Indiana Wine Trail had recently dwindled from five to three members and, as a result, plans to return $20,000, plus interest, that was provided to it more than two years ago by the JCBT to help in promotions. Madison Vineyards was sold in February, and the new owner does not plan to continue operating it as a winery. Vevay’s Ridge Winery has closed its tasting room and dropped out of the trail. So the remaining trail members plan to rebrand and possibly join forces with some Kentucky wineries moving forward, she said.
Prasil said VMI manages the finances for the trail, and it had been notified of the plan. But they are waiting for all trail members to approve the transaction before the money can be returned.

• 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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