Leader Blues

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

TOP STORY >>Tax might help bring in tourists

Leader staff writer

Would you pay a 2-percent hamburger tax to help fund the military museum, the Civil War battlefield and the parks and recreation department?

The Jacksonville Advertising and Promotion Commission will take up that issue at its meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday at city hall.

The tax is a suggestion that came out of a $12,000 tourism study funded by the commission and completed last year. The tax, which would bypass the vote of the citizens, will generate about $500,000 with 60 percent of the new money being split between the Jacksonville Museum of History, Reed’s Bridge Civil War Battlefield and the city’s parks and recreation department.

The Chamber of Commerce tourism committee is also a proponent of the tax. If the commission votes to approve the tax, it could go before the city council in early May. The council, without the vote of residents, can pass the tax.

At the commission’s March meeting, Mike Wilson, chairman of the chamber’s tourism committee, said the two-percent tax would bring in almost $550,000 annually, coupled with the two-cent hotel tax already being collected (about $80,000 annually), the commission would have $629,000 to work with.

Sherwood, which has no hotel tax, does have a hamburger tax which brings in $451,400 annually to the city’s advertising and promotion commission.

Wilson’s committee suggests the commission keep about $100,000 for discretionary spending, Reed’s Bridge Civil War Battlefield, the military history museum and the city’s parks and recreation department would each get $109,000, and the newly created Keep Jacksonville Beautiful group would get $94,000.

About $61,000 would be spent by the chamber, the commission and the council on printed advertising, promotion and marketing. Other expenditures for the money include $31,400 in administrative costs, and $5,000 each to the Patriotic Spectacular and the Wingding Festival. Alderman Bob Stroud, a longtime proponent of a hamburger tax, had his doubts.
“When most people go out to eat, they don’t think about the tax, so that doesn’t bother me. But this looks like we are divvying up a slush fund,” he said.

“What do I tell the citizens,” Stroud said. “I do want to improve our city’s tourism, but what are we going to give the citizens for their money?” Stroud asked.

Wilson responded, “It will be a hard sell.”The tourism study, prepared by Curt Cottle Consulting and Thomason Associates, pointed out that to bring in tourists the city needed an identifiable tourism district and to generate more money to promote tourism to the area.

The study said that since 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 also suggested building a new conference center and sprucing up the city through “the right mix of ordinances and aesthetics.”

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. 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 consultants 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.”