Compass chosen to draw up plan for VCVB future|[12/30/05]

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 30, 2005

By the narrowest of margins, Compass Facility Management has won a 45-day contract and will spend that time preparing a management plan for the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.

VCVB board members, who have been searching for an executive director since April, voted 6-4 this month to explore a deal with Compass and voted 5-4 in favor in the special meeting Thursday.

Interim chairman Patty Cappaert did not vote, nor did member Jo Wilson, who had been absent from the last meeting, on Dec. 15. While Cappaert, as chairman, may not have voted because there was no tie, Wilson offered no explanation for not voting. Wilson did, however, vote later on a separate motion to hire interim VCVB director Clara Ross Stamps to the position.

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&#8220Clara had so many ideas in her interview,” Wilson said. &#8220I want the public to know it isn’t divided by race. She’s a very qualified candidate.”

The motion to hire Stamps was allowed to die on a 5-5 tie with members, except for Wilson, splitting along racial lines.

Omar Nelson, who made the motion, Bobbie Morrow, Jessica Williams and Bobby Doyle, who are all black, voted for Stamps, who is also black.

Bobby Bailess, Lamar Roberts, Bill Collins, David Maggio and Tim Darden, who are all white, favored the temporary contract with Compass.

Darden, newest member of the VCVB board, said the temporary deal starts Monday.

Compass is an Iowa-based management company that holds a contract with the city for a base rate of $124,000 a year to operate the Vicksburg Convention Center and Vicksburg Auditorium.

Board members are volunteers, five appointed by the Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen, five by the Warren County Board of Supervisors and one who is an alternating appointment.

Morrow, who voted against the temporary contract, said she disagreed with the language in the Compass contract, saying it was for &#8220professional services.”

Darden said Compass will not assume the position of executive director under the temporary contract.

Darden said on Dec. 22 that a temporary contract would give Compass the go-ahead to gain access to facilities and to look at budget numbers. He said under the temporary contract Compass will have access only to historical information and will not have control over operations, staffing or changes to the bureau.

Morrow read the two-page contract aloud, including a portion saying the VCVB will not pay Compass during the temporary period. Any expenses incurred by Compass during the temporary period must receive board approval beforehand for reimbursement, Morrow read.

She said she’d like to remove that part of the document, but Darden said it needed to be included to protect the VCVB and clarify that expenses must be approved ahead of time.

State Rep. George Flaggs and resident John Shorter addressed the board, both disagreed with hiring Compass.

&#8220The law is clear,” said Flaggs, who helped draft 1995 amendments to the state law that allowed the creation of the VCVB in 1972. &#8220It was our intent to craft the language to say a person. It does not mean you have the authority to put in a management company.”

Flaggs said he has requested an Attorney General’s opinion on the legality of the issue and will forward that decision to the city, county and VCVB when one is issued.

Shorter said the issue has become a community problem.

&#8220It’s a moral dilemma going on in this community,” he said.

The agency was created as a freestanding group to focus on tourism development using funds from a dedicated tax.

In recent years, disputes have arisen over its effectiveness, problems with board members attending meetings and criticism that appointees have little knowledge or interest in tourism development.

Margaret Gilmer, general manager of the Vicksburg Factory Outlets, stressed that last point in responding to Flaggs.

&#8220The law was written to protect a person,” said Gilmer, in response to Flaggs’ comment that hiring Compass was illegal. &#8220What about protecting the (tourism) industry?”.

Gilmer is a member of the Alliance, a self-created group in favor of hiring Compass.

&#8220The Alliance is trying to bring consolidation and unity into the community,” Gilmer said. &#8220The industry ought to be driving this boat, not you Mr. Flaggs and not you Mr. Shorter. These are the people that produce the income that fund this organization.”

The VCVB, funded by a 1 percent countywide tax added to room rentals, restaurant meals and bar tabs, was created to recruit and coordinate tours, advertise local attractions, operate welcome centers and conduct other development projects. It was the first such agency of its type in the state, and its budget has grown from as little as $40,000 per year to $1 million or more.

&#8220The board is supposed to be an independent entity,” Morrow said in response to Gilmer.

Gilmer then asked Morrow if the board is not supposed to be tied to the tourism industry.

&#8220We are an independent board,” Morrow responded.

Carolyn Stephenson, owner of Annabelle Bed and Breakfast, said members of the tourism industry are desperately seeking assistance from the board.

&#8220I take exception to your statement that you do not answer to us,” said Stephenson, who is the president of the association of Bed and Breakfast businesses. &#8220The moment you don’t think you answer to us, you have no business being on that board.”

The city entered into its contract with Compass in April 2001. The company nets other income and fees and is also eligible for incentive payments up to $30,000 per year. Its contract with the city expires in September 2006.

Nelson, an attorney, said the city contract with Compass is a conflict, giving the city has leverage.

&#8220If the City of Vicksburg does not extend the contract, (Compass) has zero reason to stay in Vicksburg,” Nelson said.

He said if at any time the city did not renew it’s contract with Compass, the VCVB would be stuck without a director.

&#8220We’re no longer an autonomous board,” he said.