(April 2021) – For several weeks, many in the Madison, Ind., community have been wondering and chatting on social media and asking around if there will be a Madison Regatta this year in the wake of COVID-19. The pandemic claimed last year’s Regatta, which would have been the Unlimited hydroplane racing event’s 70th anniversary and the third year for the Roostertail Music Festival. It also would have been the second consecutive year of hosting the coveted Gold Cup.
The status of this year’s event, scheduled for July 2-5, became clearer March 22 during the Jefferson County Board of Tourism’s (JCBT) regular monthly meeting when Madison Regatta representative Matt True gave a presentation to request $75,000 to help reach its fundraising goal required to hold the event.
True, last year’s president, said his team has been working hard to raise private and corporate donations to raise the more than $563,000 it needs to bring in the race teams and fund all other logistics, such as security, cranes, porta-pots, etc. That was the cost to stage the event in 2019, and True said the group had only reached about 75 percent of that goal because sponsorships are down. The largest contribution to date is $30,000 from Nucor Steel.
“It costs us $225,000 just to bring the boats here to put them on the water,” True said. True added that this will not only be the 70th anniversary of the event but also the 50th anniversary of the 1971 Gold Cup victory by the Miss Madison race boat, an event that was portrayed in the 2001 movie “Madison.”
True’s presentation followed the board’s regular discussion about innkeepers’ tax collections and working to finalize a long overdue funding contract with Visit Madison Inc. (VMI). The treasurer’s report showed only $71,519 in the board’s checking account after the most recent innkeepers’ tax revenues had been deposited. The board also has a money market account with a balance of $163,137. Combined with some other investments, the total on hand is $386,721.
The JCBT is created by state statute to receive innkeepers’ taxes and then distribute the money. Most of the money is traditionally provided to VMI to operate the Lanier-Madison Visitors Center, pay for operations and salaries, and for tourism marketing. Each year, the two agencies sign a contract for services based on an approved budget. But this year, the two agencies have been operating without a contract because of the reduction in innkeepers’ tax collections caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. JCBT wanted to closely monitor the amounts and the decisions on how the marketing money would be spent. So in February, it funded VMI only through May, with the intention of revisiting the situation after seeing how much innkeepers taxes are collected going forward. The JCBT also indefinitely froze all tourism marketing expenditures back in October 2020. And in late February, the reduction in funding to VMI resulted in the board indefinitely laying off of its executive director, Tawana Thomas.
So with that being said, board member Todd Boone told True “there was no way it could provide $75,000 to the Regatta when we only have $71,000 in the bank. Maybe something like $10,000 or $20,000.”
True’s presentation stated the Regatta is estimated to generate $1.5 million in economic impact to the community and fills all of Madison’s hotels plus those in Scottsburg, Ind., and La Grange and Carrollton in Kentucky. It is a signature event for the city and is how many people around the country know about Madison, he said
Boone told True he didn’t have to “sell” Regatta to the board because “we all agree there’s nothing else like it. And nothing else could replace it.” But it’s a matter of money, which this year the JCBT doesn’t have.
After much discussion, Boone asked when the Regatta Committee would have to make its decision on whether to move forward.
True said the committee has until its next meeting in early April to decide. He added that after having brought the organization out of $170,000 in debt in 2018 when the current team took over, he would not want to hold the event if it means a financial loss. “I don’t think we’re going to let this event go in the red again just to try to save something.”
Boone suggested the board may want to call a special meeting to decide on how much money it could contribute since the JCBT is scheduled to meet again until April 26. Board member Wendy Lawson asked it the board could use some of its investment money to help the Regatta. President David Bramer said he was not opposed to the idea, “but it would have to be discussed and voted on by the board.”
No decision was made about holding a special meeting at the conclusion of the meeting. However, a few days after the meeting, when asked about a special meeting to consider the Regatta funding request, Boone said the board does plan to meet again before the April Regatta meeting, adding, “I really don’t know if we would break into our reserves just to keep the race on. Honestly, I think it depends on what the final number is and what caveats or covenants we can put on it.” For instance, he said the JCBT could guarantee of a certain amount to pull the trigger. Then they go out and continue to raise funds to lower the final amount that JCBT would need to put in.”
JCBT’s March 8 meeting attracts store owners
Earlier in the month, the JCBT did hold a special meeting on March 8 to iron out the details of a contract between itself and VisitMadison Inc. (VMI) ended with a session of stern feedback from several business owners about what they see as a negative and often vitriolic process to delay or curb funding Madison tourism just as the season has begun.
Four business owners and one resident used the open remarks period at the end of the meeting to voice their support for VMI and to question the method of piecemeal funding VMI operations and marketing month to month, as opposed to developing and funding an annual strategic plan for tourism.
Cara Fox, who owns The Little Golden Fox retail shop and a former VMI board president, passionately told the board that Madison needs VMI and its marketing professionalism to “bring people to Madison. We can do our little Facebook posts and social media for our local customers, but we don’t have the budget to spend on marketing to the reach the beyond Madison and the state. We depend on VMI for that.”
Bramer said the board was not purposely trying to curtail marketing Madison to visitors. “We are trying to work out a contract, and we want to get it right.”
Ellie Troutman and Beth Lewis, who own McWhiggins Wonder Emporium and Olde Tyme Marketplace, respectively, voiced their concerns that VMI was not being funded adequately to do its job to market Madison, thereby affecting their businesses. The three business owners, plus Lori Heitz, who with her husband, John, owns and operates five eateries on Madison’s Main Street, voiced concerns about the scaled back printing of the annual Madison Visitors Guide – a publication in which all the business owners in attendance had all invested advertising money. In previous meetings, the JCBT board members had debated the need for the guide and, if so, how many to print. The original plan last fall was to print 40,000 copies – down from 65,000 in 2020.
During the meeting, VMI Marketing Director Sarah Prasil confirmed she had complied with the JCBT’s instruction to order 25,000 copies to be printed, with a review planned for mid-year for the need to print more. But that came following the Feb. 22 JCBT meeting in which board members suggested the number of Visitors Guides to print could be as low as 10,000, as far as they were concerned.
“All these things you are doing on social media are great, but that is just one thing. Unlike social media, the Visitors Guide and the RoundAbout (newspaper), are measurable marketing tools, and our target market of 50-plus like them,” Troutman said. “These people are not on their laptops and cell phones all the time. We mail a Visitors Guide (and RoundAbout) in all of our shipments, and we see results.”
Earlier in the meeting, the JCBT reported that January and February produced more innkeepers’ tax revenues than in 2020, 2019 and 2018. Lewis reminded the board that those visitors responded to marketing that took place six months earlier.
“Marketing doesn’t happen overnight,” Lewis said. “Those high numbers for January and February happened because of marketing that occurred six months earlier. I’m afraid that’s not what is happening here. At my store, we are already ordering stock for Christmas. Our marketing is done six months in advance. That’s how I market.”
Board member Boone assured the business owners that strategic planning would be done after the JCBT finished cleaning up the budgetary obligations from last year and after a new contract with VMI had been finalized.
• 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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