Natchez industry leaders seek change with tourism director hire

Published 12:08am Tuesday, March 25, 2014

NATCHEZ — The Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce tourism council wants to ensure its members’ voices are heard before the City of Natchez begins the search for a new tourism director.

Connie Taunton stepped down last week as director of the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau. Taunton is currently on leave, and her retirement will be effective April 1.

Mississippi Tourism Association President Lyn Fortenbery, who is also Dunleith’s assistant general manager, told the council the purpose of a Monday meeting council members attended was to make sure they have a voice in the hiring process.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith, who was at the meeting to hear the council’s ideas and take them to the board of aldermen, said she believes it is important the city hears input for the tourism council before starting the search for a new director.

Smith said the city will likely hire an interim director to lead the CVB during the search for a full-time director.

CVB board member Ron BeQuette said the interim director will likely be someone who is not currently employed at the CVB.

The council said a determination needs to be made about whether the interim director would have the opportunity to apply for the full-time position.

The council voiced concerns that the current $55,000 salary for the CVB director is not enough to attract highly qualified candidates.

“In my opinion, that needs to double,” Fortenbery said.

Smith agreed the salary is low.

“The city is well aware of that and knows there has to be a change to get the kind of qualified person we need,” she said.

René Adams, owner of Rolling River Roasters, said competitive salaries for CVB directors around the state range from $85,000 to $100,000.

Council members had questions about who makes the ultimate hiring decision, the interview process and the director’s job description.

Smith said the Natchez Board of Aldermen will vote to make the hire but will likely take recommendations from the CVB board.

The board of aldermen, Smith said, has not met to discuss the particulars of the search for a new director.

The board’s meeting at 6 p.m. today in the Natchez City Council Chambers will be the first meeting since Taunton stepped down.

Joseph Bullen with First Natchez Radio Group suggested an advisory committee of tourism professionals and stakeholders be established to assist the city during the search for a director.

Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce President Debbie Hudson suggested the city go to the Mississippi Development Authority, under which is the state tourism office, to assist in finding money to increase the director’s salary and help with the job description.

Smith agreed with Hudson that the city has not taken full advantage of its relationship with MDA as it relates to tourism.

Hudson used the hiring of Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ as a best practice to follow because MDA was involved and specific goals and deadlines were outlined ahead of time and met. Hudson is a Natchez Inc. board member.

The council also discussed the current contracts the CVB has with consultants Jennifer Barbee, hired to help plan the city’s 2016 Tricentennial celebration, and Berkeley Young, hired to research Natchez Tourism and create a strategic plan for the CVB.

Smith said the city has requested a copy of the contract with Barbee because it could not be located at the CVB.

Smith said Barbee and Young now report directly to Mayor Butch Brown in light of Taunton’s retirement.

The council also agreed having Young involved in the search for a new director could be beneficial since he has spent nearly a year researching Natchez tourism and analyzing the work of the CVB.

Above all, council members expressed a desire for a transparent hiring process by the city and to have a director that can move the city’s tourism efforts together in a unified effort.

Hudson said she has advocated for years a strategic plan that includes the CVB as well as other entities needs to be put in place as well as an accountability system.

“A lot of times these awesome ideas we have stay as ideas,” she said. “We need to have something in place that literally says this group is taking caring of this and this group is taking care of that.”

Many council members echoed Hudson’s sentiments and expressed concern about the perception from outsiders that different entities in Natchez do not work together.

First Natchez Radio Group President Margaret Perkins, who is a Natchez Now board member, said the MDA was involved during the restructuring of the economic development authority, which ultimately resulted in Natchez Inc. as well as an independent outside company completing a strategic plan.

Perkins suggested that since Natchez tourism is splintered into different parts, an independent company might be an asset to the search for a new director and a strategic plan.

“There are so many different factions, and they all have their own agendas, which is good because they should all be working toward their different agendas, but it’s very hard to bring everyone together to work toward a common goal,” she said.