Leyens to VCVB board: You must do better job

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 23, 2004

[1/23/04]Mayor Laurence Leyens was on the agenda for the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau board Thursday and asked the six members present to move faster to hire an executive director, do better in tracking visitors and develop a clear plan for attracting more.

Leyens emphasized he was trying to be supportive, but did say he may seek resignations of some appointees if the public can’t see improvements.

The VCVB was created in the 1970s by the Legislature as one of the state’s first tourism-development commissions. Its 11-member board has five City of Vicksburg appointees, five Warren County appointees and one slot that alternates. Commissioners are volunteers who hire a staff and approve a budget to spend grants and the 1 percent sales tax collected on room rentals and restaurant and bar sales to advertise Vicksburg and for related purposes.

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“I think this board needs to take some definitive action to get a director, get the focus, set your goals and direction and make sure not only you understand what it is but also everybody in the community understands what it is,” Leyens said during a 40-minute exchange.

Eighteen-year employee Lenore Barkley, who was executive director, announced her retirement last summer and left in September. The board cited budget reasons for terminating another employee last month.

Board chairman Eric Biedenharn responded to Leyens, saying selection of a director is near, but Leyens countered that anyone hired will face a big challenge.

“I think you’ve got the town completely split and fighting among yourselves,” he charged.

Leyens said he believed the two local governments are behind the VCVB, but the bureau must begin making progress in increasing the number of people visiting the city.

“It has been 2 1/2 years that I’ve been in office and it’s been almost five years that I’ve been concerned about it, and I really don’t see progress,” he said.

Leyens praised the scenic routes designed by the VCVB to encourage people to drive through downtown Vicksburg on their way to the Vicksburg National Military Park, but called on members to eliminate guesswork.

“I’m asking you … to maybe stop everything you’re doing and get back to the basics of your mission statement … communicate that to the community and the (tourism) industry, indicate your course and direction and timeline to hire an executive director,” he said.

“The negative I want to say is at some point in the near future if we don’t see some definitive direction on this board, then I’m going to politely come in here and ask for resignations,” Leyens said.

Biedenharn said VCVB critics are resistant to change and poorly informed.

“We started in June of 2002 pushing for change,” he said, saying the VCVB has clear and ambitious goals.

And though Biedenharn cited continual downward visitor numbers as a national trend, board member Patrick Jordan told the mayor that numbers for Mississippi and Vicksburg are up, but the state overall increase is larger than Vicksburg’s.

“When Sept. 11 hit, people quit flying. They were driving to their destinations, and we are more of a driving market,” he said. In Warren County, Jordan said, tourism is up 2.4 percent.

“That tells me two things. The sky is not falling. We are better than the national average. It also tells me we are not getting our piece of the pie … They’re driving right by here,” he said.

Leyens said those numbers illustrate his point the need for cohesive VCVB action with hoteliers and other attractions.