More On Visitor's Bureau

Loudon businesses rally support for visitor's bureau

It's the start of busy season for John Smook at Tennessee Valley Winery in Loudon County. Wednesday afternoon as he loads up pallets of their varieties in a truck bound for package stores across the area, customers start to flock for tasting and other shopping at the winery store.

While the busy season doesn't have Smook looking for help, it's the slow season that he says the Loudon County Visitor's Bureau has really made a difference for the winery.

"I would say the Visitor's Bureau creates a lot of interest out of state. That's what we want, to bring the people to Loudon County and show them what Loudon County is all about," Smook said.

He estimates about 25% of his customers come in from outside Loudon County.

Now, facing a tight budget year, Loudon County's Visitor's Bureau says they're facing the very real possibility of closing their doors.

Commissioners voted last week to cut their budget. The bureau receives a cut of the county's hotel/motel tax as their funding. What was $.36 of every dollar is now $.29 of each dollar.

Commissioners in favor of the cut say if the bureau is truly bringing more and more people into the county, their bottom line will still grow since they receive a percentage of the hotel and motel stays.

But, businesses in the county are worried the cuts are too dramatic, could cause the bureau to shut down, and will have a crippling effect on tourism revenue in the county.

"I just heard about this last week and I was just shocked," Francie Harkenrider, the owner of the Watts Bar Belle said.

The Belle moved to Loudon from Roane County in part because of what they felt was a stronger tourist economy and better support system.

"The tourism bureau up here has just been awesome," she said. "They have just bent over backwards for us."

The University of Tennessee's most recent data from 2006 shows tourists spent about $40 million dollars in Loudon County during that year. That revenue, is estimated to have saved each household about $50 in county taxes.

"It'd be a crying shame to see that building close," Smook said. "Honestly, that's what I feel."

The county commission is expected to look at the budget and the impact on the visitor's center again in November.

More money or doors close: County leaders raise questions
Mary E. Hinds News Herald
As part of a full court press to city and county officials, representative of the Loudon County Visitor's Bureau came to the county commission workshop Monday night to plead their case in an effort to persuade commissioners to reconsider a funding cut or face the loss of the bureau.

The meeting room at the County Office Building was standing room only as local business leaders came out in force to support the bureau and its work promoting the county and their businesses.

Francie Harkenrider, co-owner of the Watts Bar Belle, said one factor in her deciding to come to Loudon County with the riverboat was in great part because the bureau's success in making Loudon County a tourist destination. She also praised Mary Bryant, executive director of the bureau. "You name it, Mary's involved in it," Harkenrider said. 

Jerry Reed, owner of the Tennessee Valley Winery said his business also benefits from the bureau being able to lure tourist to Loudon County. He told the commissioners they would be foolish to let such a resource get away. "It would be a terrible waste not to fund this," Reed concluded. 

Rick Terry, who owns a jewelry store in Lenoir City and volunteers at the bureau, said that while his business doesn't depend so much on tourists, it should be noted the bureau had made the county more than just a "bathroom stop" for tourists. He said Loudon County has a lot to offer but unless it is advertised no one will know. "Just market the product," he told the commissioners adding putting more money into the bureau is a "no brainer." 

At last week's final budget meeting, the commission refused to consider lessening the amount cut from the bureau's budget. At that time several commissioners questioned the notion of maintaining the bureau's funding level in the midst of the current tough economy. 

In the just-passed county budget the Visitors Bureau's funding was cut from 36 percent to 29 percent of the revenue collected from the county's hotel/motel tax. Doug Davis, head of the bureau's board of directors, told the commissioners the organization "can no longer afford the rent" on the center on Highway 321 in Lenoir City. He said without more money the bureau would have to "immediately stop all activities" including the pursuit of contracts for the county to host "the Superbowl of fishing tournaments" and a national water skiing competition. 

Davis said if more funds are not found it would mean the end of signs on Interstates 75 and 40 promoting the county as well as the loss of all marketing and advertising of the county and a loss of some state grants. Davis also told the commissioners the bureau returns $25 for every $1 spent. "You get a big bang for your buck," Davis concluded. 

Commissioner Don Miller asked if Lenoir City was going to kick in more money for the bureau. Davis answered that he had been at the city workshop immediately before the county meeting and he didn't know if city officials would vote to contribute more funding at their next voting meeting. Miller also noted that last year the county contributed $135,000 to the bureau while the city contributed nothing. This year the county budget gives the bureau $102,000 while the city is kicking in $25,000. With the city's contribution, commissioners estimated the $33,000 cut from the county budget would almost be covered by the city's new contribution. "I can't see $33,000 would shut everything down," Commissioner Nancy Marcus said. Miller agreed saying the final difference in funding once the Lenoir City contribution is added is only about $8,000. "That's gotta hurt - but shut you down?" Miller questioned.

Davis said at the moment the bureau was surviving by dipping into reserve funds. "But you're able to have reserves," Marcus countered. Commissioner Austin Shaver, who firmly opposed altering the funding cut at last week's meeting, pointed out that with the bureau getting a percentage of tourist money from the hotel/motel tax, if the bureau is successful in bringing in more visitors they will get more money. "The sky's the limit on how much money you can make," he said. 

Loudon County Mayor Doyle Arp said Lenoir City was getting more benefit from the bureau but paying a lot less for it. "Somebody's reaping the harvest," Arp said of funds generated by tourists from the sales tax and hotel/motel tax. Miller and Marcus both said they feel Lenoir City benefits more.  Davis assured the commission the bureau is "very tight with our budget." 

Commissioner Bob Franke cautioned him against signing any contracts for fishing tournaments or anything else if bureau officials really think they may have to close their doors without being able to fulfill such a contract. That could cause "big trouble" Franke cautioned. "It's a valuable asset and I hate to see it go away," Franke said of the Visitor's Bureau.

Miller agreed the bureau provided good service but he questioned Davis' estimate that the bureau brings in $25 for every dollar spent promoting county events.  Arp told commissioners the question of more funding would be on the agenda for the November commission meeting.  



More money or doors close: Lenoir City leaders express desire to consider funding
 Vicky Newman News Herald
Loudon County Visitors Bureau representatives pled its case to Lenoir City Council Monday for funding to keep open the bureau's doors. 

Doug Davis, chairman of the bureau's board of directors and supporters gathered at City Hall to address the city council during its workshop and asked for $32,000 from Lenoir City Council to do that. This is in addition to the $25,000 the city has already appropriated to the bureau.  "I had talked with Doug late last week about some things that are going on at the Visitors Bureau - not good news," Mayor Matt Brookshire informed council members. "Some of you may have already heard by this point, so I asked Doug what we could do." Brookshire invited Davis to Monday's workshop so Davis could present its circumstances and its possible future.

Davis related Monday, Oct. 12, Loudon County Commission cut the Visitors Bureau's funding from 36 percent of the hotel-motel tax revenues to 29 percent. This is a $32,000 cut. "That's what we're begging for," Davis said. "This is the third year of consecutive funding cuts," he said. "It's kind of like you get a house payment. Your house payment's a thousand dollars a month, and you're going along and you cut it, you're funding's $1,200, you're OK. You're down $1,100, well then you drop below $1,000, the note's still due at $1,000 month, and we no longer can survive.""We would be basically out of business Feb. 28," Davis said. He added that would leave the bureau with enough reserves to keep the building paid for because Loudon County Chamber of Commerce does not have the funds budgeted to take over the bureau's responsibilities. 

He warned the bureau would have to immediately stop all activities related to bringing in new events to the county, including a 2011 major fishing tournament, on which the bureau is currently working, and 2011 water skiing championships. "There could be serious legal consequences to our board if we go into contracts with people and we can't fulfill the contracts, so that's why we have to start cutting back on those things right now," Davis said. "You already have two tournaments coming in April 2010 that if we weren't here, parks and recreation would probably have to handle them for us. 

He listed some assets the city would lose, should the visitors bureau not be funded, which are the Highway 321 welcome center; interstate signage for the welcome center and billboards on Interstates 40 and 75; the bureau's tourism Web site and domain name; the marketing presence - it is in 13 state welcome centers and 20 rest areas across the country; and printed materials.  "We were requested this year to send 120,000 materials," he said. "These were not just blank mailings; these were requested from somebody who wanted promotion about the county."

Davis also listed all the event procurement functions, including new events for the county and the city; marketing/advertising functions, as ads it has in "Southern Living," "Tennessee Vacation Guide," online advertising, tourism partnerships and more; and access to tourism marketing branch from the state.  "We currently have a $5,000 grant that we're using," he said. Additionally, should the bureau not be funded, Davis warned the county would go from a three-star status in tourism maybe down to a two-star. That may, in turn, affect the grant money to cities for which Lenoir City may apply, he said.

Loss of a bureau would also affect event coordination for the two FLW Tour and Bass Federation fishing tournaments, scheduled for April 2010; coordination and task of payment of annual fees to the Appalachian Quilts and Civil War Trails, in which the bureau has gotten involved; and the coordination and task of the Tennessee Trails program, which is part of the Highway 321 scenic highway program. 

Davis said the events in which the bureau has got under contract is the FLW Collegiate Tournament, which would generate approximately $100,000.  "That's not in sales tax; that's what people spend, when they come here, to do those tournaments," he said. "The revenue you get from those comes from the hotel-motel tax. So, really, it's outside people who fund the visitor's bureau; it's not local taxes. We don't get any money from your taxes or from the county."

The bureau is under contract with FLW for $250,000. Concerning a bass tournament in the works for 2011, Davis said he couldn't name the organization involved in that tournament because contract negotiations are continuing, but he did say everywhere that organization has been, it has generated $13 million to local economy minimum. He noted this event is "like the super bowl of bass fishing tournaments." A waterskiing championship, which is being negotiated, is expected to generate $150,000 local spend money. 


He said in 2006, tourists spent $36.97 million, which brought in $.92 million in local tax receipts. In 2007, tourists spent $38.29 million, which brought in $.96 million in tax receipts; and in 2008, tourists spent $42.28 million, which brought in $1.06 million in tax receipts. He compared that to the bureau's budget of $176,000. "That's a pretty good return on your investment," he said. "And it's not tax dollars that we're taxing the local residents, it's taxes that people are coming into the area give to you."I think what happened, we got to doing pretty well, since Mary (Bryant's) been here, we've been getting these FLW events in here," Davis said. "And, we've done a real good job. There are 18 or 19 of us on the staff, and we're free. We're all volunteers." "This money (city and county revenues generated by tourism) that comes in, it helps all the education programs," City Council member Bobby Johnson Sr. said. "That sales tax comes into the school program. If you don't have that, that's going to hurt our schools."It will affect the county and the city also," Johnson noted.

Davis said some people have asked "How come the city doesn't take over this function or how come the county doesn't take over this function?"He said the FLW organizations will not work with municipal or county governments. "They don't like doing that," he warned, adding they prefer to work with visitors' centers.

Rick Terry, a volunteer with the bureau and Lenoir City businessman, urged the city to help the visitors bureau. "There are communities out in the middle of nowhere that would die to be in the geographic location that we are sitting in here," Terry said. "These people drive through our front yard. They come over here and they drop that tax at these hotels and motels."All we have to do is market the best product properly," he said. "It has got to be the best return on your investment that you can ever have." 

Terry said since he moved out here in 1973, he has seen the area's growth. "In the last 10-15 years, the Visitors Bureau and the boards and the people who served on this board way before I served on this board did a wonderful job of creating and bringing people into this community," he said. "We cannot let the visitors center and its functions die. "We've got to step up to the plate. It must be funded," he said. "It is such an insignificant amount of money that requires to run this properly.

"It started out as a partnership, and we got half that (hotel-motel) tax money," Terry said. "Now, we're getting so much less. We need to focus on what we can be doing, not where we can try to cut. We've cut it to the bone. We need this thing funded." "If this (the bureau's closing down) were to happen to the visitors bureau it would be absolutely devastating for our business," said Francie Harkenrider, general manager and one of the owners of Watts Bar Bell. 

She checked with various visitors centers in the area. While one center had 123 calls a year and 123 e-mails a year, Loudon County Visitors Bureau's calls and e-mails were in the thousands. "We couldn't survive without the visitors bureau," she said. "Mary and the ladies there have just done a phenomenal job."

Jerry Reed with Tennessee Valley Winery also expressed his support of the visitors bureau. "My business, we live and die by tourism," he said. "We're right on the interstate. The more people we can bring to this area, the more people we see in our business. "It's sort of a no-brainer; the more people you bring in here to bring money, you receive tax dollars on it, that's free money," Reed said. "I can't think of anything better than that."I think you've got to fund it (visitors' bureau)," he said.

Brookshire expressed his support of the bureau. "I want this council to at least be open-minded about trying to find some additional revenues for them this year so they don't have to close their doors," he said. "It's hard to see what goes on at the visitors bureau in a way that you can actually put your hands on it, something tangible. We think about it as kind of a bonus. "If our local budget's in good enough health, then we'll do it because it's a bonus," he said. "Imagine a building out there (on Highway 321) with closed doors," Brookshire suggested. "What kind of signal is that sending to people about this community, about (Highway) 321?

"I think the three star to two star designation could be key," he said. "If we lose the visitors center and suddenly, through the governor's three-star program, we're no longer a three-star community and go down to two, not only does that affect leverage on grants, but it also affects interest that we could pay on money that we borrow. "It's tough right now, we all know that," the mayor said. "We have looked at our sales tax revenues, and they're down. I think they are down more than we expected at this point. But, what's going to happen in a couple of years, when we bounce back and, say, we let the visitors' bureau close?"

"Give us a little time to look and see if there's some way we can do it," Brookshire told Davis and the group. "We'll certainly give it our best shot. I want to see it (the center) stay open. I think it's a function that has to continue. There's no way we, as a city, can pick up the slack."

Council member Tony Aikens asked City Administrator Dale Hurst to bring some numbers back to the budget committee. "I think we would be foolish not to try to do something to try to help them," Aikens said. 

Following the city council meeting, visitor center representatives headed to the Loudon County Commission's meeting on Monday.