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Consultant hired for 300th birthday giving city bang for its bucks?

Photo illustration by Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat
Photo illustration by Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — After more than 11 months of work, a hired gun contracted to raise funds for the 2016 Natchez Tricentennial celebration appears to be shooting blanks.

The Natchez Convention and Promotion Commission, also known as the Convention and Visitor Bureau (CVB) board, voted to hire consultant Jennifer Barbee and her Texas-based team in May 2013 to raise money to pay for Natchez’s 300th birthday celebration, as well as find corporate sponsors for tricentennial events.

Barbee provided initial fundraising projections suggesting $1.7 million could be raised by Dec. 31. 2013 and more than $4 million by the end of 2014. Her total fundraising goal was between $5 million and $10 million.

Barbee said last week she had raised far less, approximately $200,000 to $250,000 and secured two corporate sponsors — Coca-Cola Co. and Wild Turkey. Barbee said other funding and sponsorships are in the works. She predicted by the end of 2014, she might only have raised a total of $500,000.

Mayor Butch Brown, however, said he met with Coca-Cola Co. representatives about the tricentennial and does not think Barbee can be credited for that sponsorship.

Brown originally envisioned the tricentennial to be a year-long celebration including 365 days of events, such as the Beer, Bourbon and Biscuits Festival, a battle of the bands featuring college marching bands and more.

The CVB has paid Barbee approximately $244,000 to date for all of her company’s services. Those charges include a $180,000 fee for the tricentennial project and another $64,000 for revamping the CVB’s website — visitnatchez.org — and creating a weddings microsite and Barbee’s travel reimbursement. A microsite is an individual web page that is part of a larger website.

City leaders were operating under the understanding that Barbee will repay the $180,000 “seed money” and then she will make a 25-percent commission on all funds raised after that.

Language in the agreement Barbee appears to have with the CVB, however, has city officials now questioning if the funds will be repaid or not.

Former CVB director Connie Taunton, who signed the contract but retired in April, did not return calls seeking comment.

Minutes of the May 2013 CVB meeting, during which Barbee was hired, show board members present included board chair Robert McNeely, Royal Hill, Stephanie Hutchins and Jeremy Diamond.

Hutchins and Diamond have since stepped down from the board for personal reasons.

McNeely and Hill did not return calls requesting comment.

Hutchins said she does not recall the meeting, but does not believe she received a copy of that contract.

Diamond said he does not recall receiving a copy of the contract before the meeting. Diamond noted the minutes state the board approved Barbee’s hire, not that they reviewed and approved a contract.

“I couldn’t tell you if we even had a contract given to us at that meeting,” he said.

Diamond said he wouldn’t comment about Barbee’s failure to meet her projected fundraising goals.

“I don’t know enough about for whatever reason she is not hitting those goals … and I cannot make a comment on why she isn’t or if she should be,” he said.

City Attorney Hyde Carby said the contract does not appear to have been drafted by an attorney.

The contract states the $180,000 payment to Barbee is “non-refundable,” but later says the “seed money” will be repaid to the city.

The contract states parts of the agreement are not intended to be legally binding. The provision that describes the payment to Barbee and the supposed repayment of the seed money to the CVB is one of those parts.

“I’ve been given a copy of the contract and reviewed and found several puzzling terms,” Carby said. “I’ve shared some of my concerns with the mayor.”

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith, who has recently become a liaison between the city and tourism professionals, said she has suggested to the CVB board that going forward, the board keeps an attorney on a retainer to attend the board meetings and review legal documents before they are approved or have Carby review potential contracts.

Brown said he agrees the contract does not appear to have been drafted by a competent attorney.

Barbee’s failure to meet her goals is disappointing, Brown said.

Barbee said she is confident sponsors will rally close to the tricentennial.

“It’s just a matter of sponsors realizing 2016 is fast approaching,” she said. “It puts us a little further behind than we’d like, but we have a full-time event planner, and we’re a little behind, but it’s all going to come out really fast in the end.”

Smith said Barbee’s slow progress on fundraising is worrisome.

“I am absolutely concerned about it,” she said. “I am concerned about the high-dollar amount paid upfront and how the company’s performance is substantially short of projected sponsor revenue. That being said, there is still time for Barbee to perform by bringing in additional sponsors and helping to organize events.”

Smith said the city has put together a small steering committee, including the Interim CVB Director Creda Stewart, to work as closely as possible with Barbee to make sure plans for the tricentennial effectively move forward.

Brown said he is not dwelling on what happened in the past and is trying to move forward with the plans for the tricentennial.

“I’m not going to waste tricentennial planning time or the volunteer (committee’s) time trying to figure out what the hell happened,” he said. “We know what happened. Money has been spent, and we haven’t received anything for it.”

Brown said he wished the money used to hire Barbee had instead been used to hire a full-time tricentennial director, something the city now plans to do.

“The fact is if I could change it, I would have already done it,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is make the most out of a situation fraught with problems and trying to deal with it.

“It’s like coming in after a storm and having no idea what you’re going to do because you can’t assess what all the damage is.”

The tricentennial will go on as planned, Brown said, and 365 days of events is not unachievable, despite being behind with fundraising.

“It will happen, and it’s going to be the best celebration this country has ever seen,” he said.