Leader Blues

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

TOP STORY >>Consultant pushes a tourism district

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville needs an identifiable tourism district, according to a $9,700 study the city’s advertising and promotion commission asked for. Along with that identifiable district, the city also needs to generate more money to promote tourism to the area, the report said. The report was presented at the commission meeting earlier this month where commissioners voted to spend another $3,000 with the consultants, Curt Cottle Consulting and Thomason Associates, to give the city direction and a plan. “The report doesn’t tell us anything new,” said commission Chairman Marshall Smith, “the question is which way to go now.”

That direction, according to consultant Curt Cottle, points to the city’s rich military history and use the city’s military museum on Veteran’s Circle, off Main Street and Reed’s Bridge civil war battlefield, off Highway 161. The study also suggests building a new conference center and sprucing up the city through “the right mix of ordinances and aesthetics.”

One question that commissioners clearly answered was the need for a prepared foods tax, commonly known, as a hamburger tax, to pay for any plan the consultants and the city decide on. The city council can approve up to a three-cent prepared foods tax, without a vote of the residents. It was suggested at the commission’s December meeting that every one-cent of the tax would generate about $300,000. Currently the city has a two-cent motel room tax which generates about $80,000 a year which is used to promote the city and help fund various activities and business such as the military museum and the annual patriotic show and fireworks.

Sherwood, which has no hotel tax, does have a hamburger tax which brings in $451,400 to the city’s advertising and promotion commission, more than five times more than the Jacksonville commission gets. The study said that sense Jacksonville does not have a true downtown and central or tourist district, like Little Rock did with the River Market, needs to be created. According to the study, “The area around the military museum would seem to be the most logical place to anchor one end and perhaps the new library/park area on the other. The divided road (Main Street) is an interesting feature and one that already signals to the out-of-towner something different than everywhere else in town.”

The consultants added that “once identified, the area will need its own name and identity. Ideally, there would be some historical basis for the name and location. Pick something beyond the generic Downtown district to give it more character, maybe something based on the old ordinance plant.”

The study went on to say that “in addition to the look of Jacksonville, the city could do more with the fact it has a real interesting story in the ordinance plant. Even though most vestiges are gone, what remains should be identified and waysides developed to explain those sites and their relation to others and the overall story.”

“World War II sites are currently high-interest tourism stops,” Cottle said. The consultants called the military museum a plus for the community, but added “small museum attendance nationally has been in decline in recent years.” The study said that the Reed’s Bridge battlefield site is also “ripe for investment” and recommended a tie-in with the museum, suggesting a ticket to the museum could also include an afternoon picnic at the battlefield. The consultants also recommend advertising that the Trail of Tears also came through the area near the battlefield.

The city’s current 56,000-square foot conference center, a part of the city’s 11-year-old community center just south of city hall, had to turn away nearly 400 events in 2005 because it was already booked, turning down about $94,000 in additional revenue.
“The current numbers would suggest ample capacity for a new conference space,” the study said. “The city has a location in mind and the funding capacity should it choose to go that route. Such a move would only have a positive impact on the lodging, restaurant and retail opportunities in the area.”

Restaurant selection seems to be a hinder in attracting tourist, according to the study. It says the city has 52 places to eat, but most are chains and fast food facilities. “One website only lists four locally operated facilities,” the consultant said. The study reported that travelers account for 30 percent of fine dining sales, 20 percent of family dining sales, 20 percent of sales at casual restaurants and 15 percent at quick stop places. Shopping, according to the study, is the most popular domestic trip activity and “Wal-Mart and other large discount chains will not cut it from a tourism standpoint.” Cottle said that “for the most part, rural tourism is dependent on small town charm and sensibilities, with business communities characterized by numerous owner-occupied small businesses.”

The consultants did say that the numerous antique and flea market stores within its city limits help support tourism.