Tourism tax hike on hold for now|[8/29/06]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Leyens cites needs for viable groups.

There will no longer be a push to double the local tourism tax in January’s legislative session, said Lynn Foley, vice president of the Vicksburg Chapter of the Mississippi Hotel & Lodging Association and a member of the Vicksburg-Warren Community Alliance Tourism Council.

Instead, the issue will be brought back up once two groups representing restaurants and lodging are viable, Mayor Laurence Leyens said.

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&#8220I have backed off the tax until they get together and can get involved in the marketing of this community,” he said.

The issue of raising the existing 1 percent tax collected on restaurant meals, room rentals and bar sales has been seen as a way to increase marketing funds available to the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.

&#8220I wouldn’t support (the increase) because it puts Vicksburg in the top three in taxes,” said state Sen. Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg, interviewed separately.

The tourism tax is in effect countywide. Inside Vicksburg, there is also a 2 percent tax on room rentals, enacted 10 years ago to help pay for the Vicksburg Convention Center and continued in effect even though the bonds for that project were paid off in March.

With the state’s general 7 percent tax, the assessments mean there’s an 8 percent tax on prepared meals and a 10 percent tax on room rentals.

Despite Chaney’s comment, areas with a 5 percent or higher tourist tax listed on Mississippi Tax Commission Web site are Desoto County, Harrison County, City of Jackson, Jackson County, Oxford and Rankin County.

Tourism groups, including the Tourism Council and Compass, which operates the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, approached the issue again in July, believing a renewed enthusiasm in tourism may push the tax through. An additional tax would be used strictly for marketing the area and funds would be allocated to the VCVB, which now operates on about $1 million per year through the 1 percent tax.

Without a significant number of hoteliers involved in the hotel and lodging association and no active restaurant association, Leyens said it will be another couple of months before an increased tax will be revisited.

But, Chaney said he still may not support an increased tax.

&#8220They need to have a lot of consensus. If they all come to the table and say they were for it, I might look at it,” he said. &#8220I can’t say 100 percent that I would support it, though.”

Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, said he has not been approached about the additional tax and he will not say he is for or against it until he sees a proposal in writing.

&#8220Before I respond, I need to know the economic impact,” he said. &#8220I will be receptive to whatever would enhance the quality of tourism.”

Foley said the hotel and lodging group is hoping to boost participation, a move which will more than likely cause a break from the Mississippi Hotel & Lodging Association.

The chapter, developed in July 2005, required members to follow bylaws and pay dues to the state organization in order to vote on issues.

Foley said the local group was only able to gain the participation of seven paid members, representing 12 properties. Vicksburg and Warren County has about 25 hotels and 15 bed and breakfasts.

In addition to a restructured lodging group, Leyens has voiced an interest in having a restaurant association, from which he will appoint its leader to a vacant city VCVB board seat.

Leyens said Christi Kilroy, executive director of the Vicksburg-Warren Chamber of Commerce, is developing the restaurant association, which will include both chain and locally owned eateries.

&#8220A restaurant association and hotel association should be inclusive,” Leyens said. &#8220They should meet regularly and have a central voice.”

Without representation from a majority of hoteliers, Foley said the organization could not effectively endorse the tax increase. She and the six additional members even looked at the possibility of reallocating the 2 percent lodging tax since it has served its purpose.

&#8220We wanted to find out what the money is being used for and explore the option of reallocating some – if not all – to the VCVB,” Foley said of a meeting the lodging group had with the Board of Mayor and Alderman Aug. 16. &#8220We learned that the money was not specifically designed to pay those bonds.”

Leyens said the tax is now used to offset expenses incurred by the convention center.

&#8220We subsidize with an additional $400,000 to operate the convention center,” he said.

Foley said the hotel and lodging association will host a meeting Sept. 19 for members of the Alliance and VCVB to present their advertising plans. The meeting was originally scheduled to discuss the occupancy tax, she said, but instead will be more of an information-gathering session for the group.

‘Let go of anger,’ Leyens challenges.

Vicksburg Mayor Laurence Leyens called a meeting of selected tourism people Monday to plead with them to &#8220let go of the anger and hostility, and let’s just get it right.”

There were harsh exchanges and accusations as the meeting began and then, Leyens said, the meeting ended with fences mended.

A Thursday board meeting of the Vicksburg Convention & Visitors Bureau erupted when Tourism Council members said the VCVB wasn’t being inclusive or considerate of the privately formed group’s efforts.

Some attending Monday at City Hall were invited by Leyens. Others came after hearing about the session. Leyens insisted his comments be public. Other discussions were closed.

Attending were Ann Jones, Tourism Council chairman; Scott Martinez, Alliance executive director; Tourism Council member Margaret Gilmer; VCVB board chairman Nelda Sampey; Larry Gawronski, manager of Compass Facility Management, the company hired as management consultants for the VCVB; and Compass employees Erin Powell and Norman Ford.

There is overlap, as Jones is listed as a possible VCVB board member and Gawronski and Sampey are Tourism Council members.

Compass reported Thursday that matching grant advertisements had been ordered, with partial funding coming from the Mississippi Development Authority.

The Alliance, however, was granted $22,913 by Warren County supervisors for an ad campaign, after Tourism Council said there was no ad money left in the VCVB budget.

Jones, owner and operator of Mississippi River Tours, said Monday she feels the VCVB is operating on a separate agenda than the Tourism Council.

&#8220I think money is being spent the wrong way because of the state of the (tourism) industry – because of Katrina and gas prices,” she said.

Leyens urged the tourism leaders to &#8220quit fighting” and focus on the big picture. &#8220We all have the same goal and objective,” he said.

Leyens said he believes the problem is miscommunication. Martinez said, after hours of discussion, the group took the mayor’s advice in what he called an &#8220agreement to agree.”

&#8220The Tourism Council of the Alliance discussed future plans for marketing, advertising and image building for Vicksburg,” he said. &#8220We look forward to collaboration with the VCVB and Compass for growth and enhancement of tourism in our community.”

The VCVB is a city-county agency established by a 1972 state law as the exclusive funding arm for tourism. It is funded with about $1 million from a tourism tax.

The Alliance is a private group, but has received public money. It was developed in 2001 as an umbrella organization with the stated purpose of coordinating all development efforts and to avoid duplication.