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Tell me about Natchez: CVB operations unknown to board

NATCHEZ — Two Natchez aldermen say they want a better understanding of the operations of the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith, who started her first term last July, said many people told her while she was campaigning that they would like to see the Natchez Board of Aldermen more involved in the operations of the CVB and its marketing efforts.

“People said they would like to see changes in how tourism is done, and they want to know if we are effectively marketing with the tax dollars,” Smith said. “I want to take a harder look at how they’re spending money effectively and (see) more accountability.”

As a newcomer to the board, Smith said she is not exactly sure what the duties of the Natchez Convention and Promotion Commission, or the CVB Board, entail.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said she agrees that the city’s governing board does not have a clear understanding of the purview of the CVB board.

“We don’t understand what they do and what their policies are and what oversight we have and what oversight they have,” Arceneaux-Mathis said.

A personnel question arose at last week’s aldermen meeting when Smith asked Natchez Tourism Director Connie Taunton if the CVB had filled the open director of sales position. Taunton said the CVB had hired Lynsey Smith as director of sales.

Alderwoman Smith then asked Mayor Butch Brown whether the board of aldermen needed to approve the hire, and Brown told her the CVB has its own board that handles that.

Taunton said last week the CVB board works with her on personnel issues.

But CVB board Chairman Robert McNeely and member Royal Hill said their board does not handle personnel matters.

“All of that goes to the city,” McNeely said.

Senate Bill 3191, which governs the CVB board and includes House Bill 1883 that was passed in 1998 and established the board, gives the board the authority to operate as an independent entity from the city and operate the visitor center. The CVB contracts with the city to manage the visitor center’s payroll.

The bill gives the aldermen the authority to appoint the CVB board members, who serve at the will and pleasure of the board.

The current CVB board members are McNeely of the Isle of Capri, Vice-chairman Hill of AJFC Community Action Agency, Stephanie Hutchins of Southwest Distributors, educator Katie Moore, lawyer Jeremy Diamond and Nancy Best, who is the manager at Bowie’s Tavern and a hospitality instructor at Copiah-Lincoln Community College.

The contract states that the city and the CVB board should meet once a year to discuss the budget. Aldermen have said that has not been done in the past, and Arceneaux-Arceneaux-Mathis said she thinks the board of aldermen and CVB need to meet.

McNeely said the basic duties of the CVB board include overseeing the marketing efforts of the CVB.

The board meets quarterly and receives updates on marketing efforts from the CVB staff. The commission also approves the CVB’s annual budget, which is then sent to the Natchez Board of Aldermen for final approval. The budget for the current fiscal year is approximately $1.3 million.

The commission, Hill said, looks at the annual tourism tax collections as an indicator for how well the year has gone.

Hill said he believes the CVB is short-staffed and does the best job it can with the dollars available.

“Of course it could be better,” he said.

The CVB is working now, Hill said, with consultant Berkeley Young on a strategic plan to grow the city’s marketing efforts.

The marketing efforts that are funded by the $2 hotel and bed-and-breakfast occupancy tax are directed by the Tourism Marketing Advisory Committee, which is made up of 13 tourism and business professionals.

Committee Chairman Wayne Potter said the committee looks to Taunton and her staff to advise them on specific marketing efforts for which the $2 tax money should be used.

“What kind of impact it will have on tourism is primarily what we’re interested in,” he said. “If someone comes in with an event (for funding), we try to find out how many people are participating, how many nights they will be in town and look at those things.”

Potter said the committee has struggled with monitoring the success of the marketing efforts. The committee, he said, also looks to the tourism taxes generated to gauge the success of marketing, as well as online marketing information.

“It’s hard to measure other than just looking at the result at the end of the year and how much activity there has been,” he said. “Primarily, we look at the $2 head (on bed hotel) tax and how it compares to the previous years. For instance, last year we were at an all-time high, so I would judge what we’re doing as effective.”

Another problem the committee has struggled with in the past is getting its members to attend meetings.

“We would encourage all organizations that have representatives on the committee to make sure they are attending the meetings,” he said.

The legislation that established the committee outlines that the committee be made up of three members from the hotel/lodging industry, two members from the restaurant/food and beverage industry, one member from Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, one member from the business community at large to be recommended by the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce, one member from each casino, one member from the Natchez Association for the Preservation of Afro-American Culture, one member from the Historic Natchez Foundation and one member from the Natchez Business and Civic League.

The committee approves the marketing plan for the $2 head on bed tax money. It is then sent to the CVB board and finally to the city, Taunton said.

Smith said she would like more information about the marketing efforts of the CVB and said she will make a concerted effort to take a harder look at the CVB operations. Prior to Smith taking office, former Ward 3 alderman Bob Pollard served as a liaison to the CVB.

When Mayor Brown took office, he did not appoint a tourism liaison. Brown said he is not sure when a CVB liaison was established because, he said, when the CVB board was created during his first tenure as mayor, there was not an alderman that served as a liaison.

Taunton said the liaison was established after she asked for one during Brown’s previous time as mayor.

Smith said she believes there is a division of effort between the CVB and several other entities that also market Natchez. Smith said she hopes the strategic plan prepared by Berkeley Young will include other tourism groups in addition to the CVB.

Arceneaux-Mathis said since a lot of the city’s tourism attractions are in her ward, she is going to try to attend more of the CVB board meetings so she can have first-hand knowledge of CVB business.

Arceneaux-Mathis and Smith both said they think the board of aldermen needs to take a closer look at the CVB so everyone is on the same page.

“We need to revisit the whole thing,” Arceneaux-Arceneaux-Mathis said. “So everybody on the board understands exactly how things work down there, what oversight we have and what we can expect in terms of regulation and accountability.”

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