By Peggy Mackenzie
Speaking before the county commission Tuesday evening, on July 28, Kara Dense, executive director of Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) presented a proposed clear plan for the next 5 to 10 years to grow tourism and bring new business into Greenbrier Valley.
“I cannot stress how important the tourism industry is for Greenbrier County,” Dense said. “We need to be proactive and plan ahead, because, without a plan, it is truly a plan to fail.”
The CVB cannot do this alone, she said. Citing the county commission’s current comprehensive plan, first developed in 2004, section 1.1.1, titled Tourism Strategic Plan, says “Encourage the Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau to implement the specific strategic plan recommendation from the 2006 comprehensive travel study.” That plan is now more than 10 years old and due for a review in 2016. In that time, Dense said, “The landscape of our industry has changed dramatically. We have new hotels, new businesses, and several new events.”
“We need a county-wide strategic tourism development plan,” Dense urged.
Supported by several important industry stakeholders, and spearheaded by the CVB, Dense described the three strategy points of the Tourism Development Initiative as follows:
I. Ten-year Strategic Plan for Tourism Development -$100,000
A hired firm would assess the county’s current assets, strengths and weaknesses and future needs, that would become a road map for the wants and needs of visitors in the years to come. This information will help current businesses plan for the future and offer a wealth of information for potential developers.
II. Transportation Study – $100,000
This study will focus solely on transportation and parking for large events. (This is not a general traffic study, Dense said. Feedback overheard from various event participants has been, “The [name the event] was great, but, wow, the traffic was a nightmare!”)
III. Group Sales Initiative – $150,000
This is a group sales program, critical to get underway as soon as possible, Dense said, and will assist in getting a robust sales program off the ground so that during the off season, targeted groups will be here when lodging properties, restaurants and retail partners need the business the most.
The pricetag for the commission to participate is $350,000, and would include the county as a partner with the other community stakeholders.
It became quickly apparent that the commission was reluctant to commit.
Commission president Mike McClung began his response stating he recognized that, indeed, the GCC and the CVB have a partnership, by statute, in that both parties split the 3 percent hotel/motel bed tax revenue equally. The CVB uses its half to support tourism and “it obviously does an award-winning job,” McClung admitted; however, he stated more than once, “It’s your work,” – and not the commission’s work.
The county commission, he said, on the other hand, uses its remaining half of the bed tax funds, under the umbrella of “arts and rec grant funds,” to support many organizations, and is required to stay within a budget. This year, he said, 80 requests for funding were considered, but, due to the budget, they awarded only 47 nonprofit organizations with funding.
“If the CVB thinks this proposal is worthwhile,” McClung went on, “and if it honestly thinks the investment of $350,000 is worth it, maybe we should support the initiative.” He proposed a counteroffer to loan the CVB the $350,000, interest free, to be repaid within three years with payments beginning six months after receiving the loan.
“I want to help you have it,” he said, stating he thought the loan was reasonable.
Dense stood silently and replied the CVB could not repay the county at $100,000 a year. “Yes, we at the CVB are tourism professionals; we are marketers,” she said. “We do not hold onto our bed tax money, we use it to promote Greenbrier County as a premier tourist destination.”
Dense then broached the topic of the county’s nest egg of over $2 million in bed tax funds. “It’s because those funds are available [purportedly for tourism purposes], which would benefit the county, that we have come to you first with this request,” she declared. “The GCC doesn’t have the expertise, but we do – to get the ball rolling.”
Dense went on, “There is no other investment to which you could apply those funds that would match the return that this investment will create.”
Commissioner Lowell Rose, in acknowledging the nest egg, said the county is planning to invest in a recreation facility under the oversight of arts & recreation director Roy Grimes. He added that the commission is also looking to apply bed tax monies to address internal courthouse upgrades, such as air conditioning.
“As far as a recreation facility is concerned,” Dense rebutted, “the GCC should check out the basis for that expenditure first. Charleston has one, and they are going bankrupt.”
Rose then made an alternate motion to approve financing for the first two items of the initiative, not to exceed $200,000, which, he said, meets the recommendations of the county’s comprehensive plan. However, that motion failed at 2-1.
After the failed motion, it was clear the initiative would have to be revisited by both parties after further discussion. “We understand you will need to come back,” Rose said to Dense.
In other business:
Suddenlink representative Jack Ozminkowski requested the commission’s approval of a change in control of the county’s cable television franchise, brought on as a result of the recent purchase of Suddenlink by a French cable company, Altice, for $9.1 billion for 70 percent control of the seventh largest cable company in the U.S.
Although the commission expressed concern at having no control or knowledge over what the new cable owner’s intents were for the county, Rose moved to approve the change of control of the county’s cable company, stating the new company would still be under the same rules and regulations as Suddenlink was. Ozminkowski’s answer to those concerns was, “We will do our best.”
The commission approved a grant agreement for the WV Community Corrections Day Report Center’s operations for $231,757, an amount, which county commission clerk Kelly Banton said, was 5 percent lower than received by the center last year.
Commissioner Woody Hanna had prepared a 16-page presentation of the guidelines and policies for the animal control department, which, he said, was not yet ready for adoption. He recommended tabling the agenda item until all parties had a chance to review it.
The next commission meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 12, at 7 p.m.