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City to appoint board to oversee tourism funding

In a bit of a curveball, it’ll be a board nominated by the LaGrange City Council — not the chamber of commerce or another entity — that will oversee the city’s tourism funds in the future. 

On Tuesday, the LaGrange City Council voted unanimously in favor of establishing a 501(c)(6) convention and visitors bureau to oversee the use of city tourism funds, ending months of discussion over the handling of the city’s tourism funding.  The entity, which will be known as the LaGrange Convention and Visitors Bureau, will function in a similar model to the LaGrange Downtown Development Authority. The city council will appoint the bureau’s board members and approve its budget. 

The LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce has overseen the hotel/motel tax since 1991, but the city did not renew that agreement for this fiscal year, which started July 1.

In the last year, there’s been a lot of discussion over the tourism budget, which increased nearly 30 percent from 2014 to 2018 due to new amenities in the city. In September, city council members requested additional financial reporting on how tourism funds were spent by the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce. Since then, the Troup County Tourism Development Authority, which is made up of local entities, was formed and also put in a proposal to control the hotel/motel funds. 

City Manager Meg Kelsey said the LaGrange Convention and Visitors Bureau Board will appoint its own director and will be responsible for hiring and engaging experts, coordinators, press relation services, media buyers and other groups and individuals necessary to attract visitors and tax revenue. 

“It is going to be vital that we pull together as a community to make sure that we are working together to sell LaGrange,” City Manager Meg Kelsey said. “We’re all in this together, and there are people on different sides of the fence. At the end of the day, it is all about making sure the city is successful and our businesses are successful here — not just our attractions, but our restaurants, our museums, all of the great things we have to offer.”

Three proposals were submitted to control the funding, but Kelsey said one was eliminated because it did not include a budget. Kelsey said the remaining two proposals were similar in many ways, but each had benefits and drawbacks. 

“There are strong points and there are weak points to really both proposals, and as I evaluated them in my mind and as I look at them, I put them in a rubric,” Kelsey said. “I tried to score and look at them. So, I started looking at some other communities and talking to my peers across the state to try to gain more understanding about what other communities are doing. How are they successful? Why do they use that model? I think all of that is important.”

Ultimately, she recommended that the council take the approach used by other cities and counties in the state and create a convention and visitor’s bureau. She said the proposal was based off of the bureau’s ability to respond to the most prevalent council concerns regarding tourism spending.

“This RFP came about due to a couple of issues,” Kelsey said. “One, we were concerned about transparency. Two, we were concerned about making sure we were handling our fiduciary responsibility, and three, we were concerned about the direction of our efforts and making sure we were moving forward in the right direction in those efforts.”

She said that the new bureau would address those concerns because of the city’s ability to share already existing resources to greater effectiveness to benefit the new entity.

“The bottom line here is that we want to benefit all of our attractions and businesses within the community,” Kelsey said. “That is what this money is about, and at the bottom line, it increases our tax revenues, if we have the right marketing in place to advertise LaGrange as a destination.”

Initial proposals from both of the finalists reportedly only allocated 30 to 40 percent of their budget to marketing firms, and after a request that the group serve as a conduit for tourism funds over all else, the allocations reportedly changed to 62 to 70 percent for marketing firms.  However, the LaGrange Convention and Visitors Bureau would likely have far lower overhead since it could operate in a city-owned building and will not need to pay utilities, according to Kelsey.

The proposed location for the new entity will be in 206 Ridley Avenue, which is located between LaGrange City Hall and city council chambers. The property was purchased by the city in October 2017, giving the city ownership of the full 200 block of Ridley Avenue. Kelsey said that the building would require renovations for its new use.

During the work session, Kelsey shared several ideas for how to measure the success of the new visitor’s bureau, and all the council members who spoke during the work session said that they liked the idea.

“Over the past year, the mayor and council have received lots of complaints about tourism,” Mayor Jim Thornton said. “We have. It has just been a reoccurring thing. The reason that those have been directed to the mayor and council is because at the end of the day the mayor and council are responsible for the deployment of the tourism funds. … If we are going to get the blame for it, I think we might as well control it. We need to have a role to play in directing it.”

Jeff Brown of the Troup County Tourism Development Authority spoke during the evening meeting.

“I have some concerns,” Brown said. “… There seemed to be an over emphasis on digital, and I think digital is growing in this industry, like it is in many industries, but it is far from being the end all and the be all of things. Just as one example, if you have a strong executive director with connections, good marketing skills, good selling ability, who can close a deal. He brings three or four conventions here — larger conventions — we will more than match the number of people that most likely we’d reach by digital marketing.”

Brown also raised concerns regarding the possibility of a leaderless tourism board during major state conferences scheduled to take place in LaGrange this fall. Thornton thanked him for his comments and said they would be taken under consideration.  

“The LaGrange-Troup county chamber has been honored to serve the city of LaGrange as the official DMO for tourism the last 28 years,” said Dale Jackson, Chairman of the Request for Proposal Committee for the chamber. “While we do continue to believe that as an institution we are perfectly capable of continuing in that role, we fully understand the circumstances and context in which the city has made their decision. I have trust in Meg Kelsey and city leadership to be able to grow tourism for Troup County and LaGrange. Right now, the most important thing the chamber and our community stakeholders can do is to rally around the City of LaGrange and offer cooperation and help with the transition.”

“I am delighted that the LaGrange City Council has made a decision regarding Tourism,” said Marlene Rhodes, Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. “We are in support of their decision to create a Convention and Visitors Bureau for LaGrange and we are willing to help in any way necessary.  It’s an exciting time for Tourism in our community.”  

The LaGrange City Council will meet again on Aug. 13 at 5:30 p.m. at 208 Ridley Avenue.