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State officials lobbying for more tourism funds

Illustration by Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat

Illustration by Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — With less money than any state in the South to promote tourism, officials say Mississippi and cities such as Natchez are getting lost in the crowd.

Mississippi Tourism Association President Lyn Fortenbery of Natchez said the tourism industry is hopeful that will change this year.

MTA has been lobbying for support of a $15 million appropriation for the Mississippi Development Authority’s Tourism Division.

The appropriation would increase the state’s current tourism budget of a little more than $6 million by nearly $9 million, said Malcolm White, director of MDA’s Tourism Division.

Part of the money would allow the state to bring back its community match-grant funding program, Fortenbery said.

The program would allow cities to receive matching funds for a marketing campaign.

For example, if a city wanted to run a television campaign and had a budget of $25,000, the city could apply to the program to receive up to $25,000 in matching funds to use for the campaign.

Bringing that program back could tremendously help Natchez’s marketing efforts, Natchez Tourism Director Connie Taunton said.

“We have $400,000 to spend on marketing,” Taunton said. “That’s not a drop in the bucket. With the matching-grant program, we could convert that to $800,000.”

With that kind of money, Taunton said Natchez could run more television advertising campaigns, as well as increase its online presence.

More funding would also mean more promotion for Natchez as a destination wedding location.

“We’re kicking off that program because that’s a big market for Natchez, and we’re having to be really selective on where we advertise because of budget limitations,” Taunton said.

Approximately half of the state’s tourism budget is spent on buying advertising to promote the state as a whole to tourists.

The increase would bring Mississippi more in line with the money its main competition — Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee — is spending to promote their state to tourists.

“With the state of Mississippi’s advertising budget, we’re being outspent 2-to-1 and a lot of times 3-to-1,” said Neal McCoy, chair of MTA’s legislative committee and director of the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Arkansas’ tourism budget is approximately $12 million, but includes funding for the state’s park system as well.

Alabama’s tourism budget is $18.3 million and is in a unique position because the Raycom Media is owned by the Retirement Systems of Alabama, the administrator of the pension fund for employees of the state of Alabama. The state receives approximately $15 million of in-kind advertising from Raycom, McCoy said.

Louisiana’s tourism budget is $22 million. Arkansas’ budget is a little more than $12 million, but also includes the state’s park system.

Tennessee’s budget is $28.6 million, and Gov. Bill Haslam has requested an additional $6 million to increase tourism funding for Tennessee in the next fiscal year.

The request for an increase in Mississippi’s tourism appropriation this year comes after a bill to create a performance-based budget model for tourism was rejected last year and tourism officials were asked to come back with another proposal this year.

The bill would have, among other things, implemented a pilot program in which the growth in sales tax generated by identified tourism activities would be placed in a special tourism and marketing fund. That move would position Mississippi’s tourism marketing to be a bit more self-funded and not depend upon legislative appropriations each year.

States such as Florida — which has a $65 million tourism budget — Ohio and Missouri have self-funded tourism budget models.

Moving tourism funding out from under legislatures to self-funded models is a trend in state government, said tourism consultant Berkeley Young of Young Strategies, a company that recently completed a tourism study of Natchez.

California takes a percentage of the tax on every car rented in the state and dedicates it tourism spending.

“So they are guaranteed $50 million in funding, and the legislature doesn’t vote on it,” Young said.