Leader Blues

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

TOP STORY >>City wants to promote its heritage

Leader staff writer

After the Jacksonville Advertising and Promotion Commission reviewed a 24-page tourism assessment of the city on Monday, Aldermen Bob Stroud made it clear, “We need money. We need to promote this city.” Stroud, a commission member, wants the group to consider proposing up to a three-cent tax on prepared foods, which could bring in about $900,000 a year.
“Everyone around us except Sherwood is at three cents,” Stroud said. “It’s going to have to happen here. We need someone to push this thing through the city council.

Tommy Dupree, a member of the chamber of commerce tourism committee readily agreed. “We need to pay-off the museum, expand the community center and acquire more battlefield land. We need as much tax as possible with a sunset clause.
Annabelle Davis, marketing director for the city’s parks and recreation department cautioned the group about a sunset clause. “We can’t under fund maintenance and operations of our attractions.” All agreed that no tax would be asked for until a definitive plan to attract more tourists to the city is developed.

With that in mind, the commission voted to pay about $3,000 to Thomason and Associates to develop a plan and help point the city in the right direction. The commission had already spent $9,700 with the consultants for the report their reviewed Monday night. Chairman Marshall Smith reminded the commission that it could ask the city council to approve up to a three-cent tax on prepared foods, commonly called the hamburger tax, without seeking a vote from the residents. Dupree said that last year city restaurants sold about $30 million in food, meaning each cent of tax would bring in about $300,000. A three-cent tax would equate to $900,000.

City Finance Director Paul Mushrush couldn’t verify those figures but said he could get information from the state finance department so the commission would have a clearer idea of the amount the tax could generate. Currently the commission is funded by a two-cent hotel room tax, which is bringing in about $80,000 per year. The commission could ask the city council to increase that tax by an additional penny without residents voting on the issue. “The hotel owners are against it and the tax would bring in that much more,” said Smith.

Mayor Tommy Swaim, who is also a member of the commission, said if the group asked for a hamburger tax it would be best to split it with the parks and recreation department. “That’s what Sherwood and Little Rock do. Don’t expect to have all that money for commission use,” the mayor said. Smith told the commission that currently Cabot has a 1.5 cent tax on prepared foods and hotel rooms, Little Rock has a two-cent tax on prepared foods and hotel rooms, North Little Rock has a three-cent tax on both, while Sherwood has no hotels, hence no tax on hotel rooms and a two-cent tax on prepared foods. The consultant’s report provided the commission with not much that they already knew, according to Smith.

The report said that ”historically the city has not experienced much tourism outside of visiting friends and relatives.” But added that the “recent addition of the Jacksonville Museum of History and plans for the historic battlefield signal an opportunity to grow beyond the current visitor base.” Curt Cottle, one of the consultants presenting the report to the commission, said the city to focus on its military heritage and promote its military ties. The report said that Jacksonville has many assets and provides for a good livable community for its residents but has some significant hurdles as it strives to attract tourism.”

Cottle said the city needs to pay particular attention to how it looks. “Call it the ‘charm factor’, but out-of-towners are attracted to and want to be in locations that are prettier and livelier than their own.” The report said Jacksonville was at a disadvantage without a distinct downtown. Cottle recommended that the city work at developing a marketable district similar to Little Rock’s River Market District. The consultants recommended that Jacksonville focus on developing area of Main Street anchored by the military museum on the east end and the new library on the west end. “The divided design of Main Street is an interesting feature and one that already signals to the out-of-towners something different than everywhere else in town,” the report said.