Tapestry comes to an end

Published 12:10 am Saturday, June 7, 2014

Lower crowds, discontent over taxes cited

A six-year revival of open-house tours at Vicksburg’s oldest homes, bed-and-breakfast and most historic areas is ending due to reduced business at this past spring’s installment, organizers said.
Tapestry, the brand under which the springtime tours had operated since 2009, drew just 499 visitors during its 23-day run in April, said Carolyn Stephenson, president of the Vicksburg Bed & Breakfast Association. The association voted Wednesday to disband, leaving the marketing of properties such as Annabelle Bed & Breakfast and the George Washington Ball House to individual owners. Each member venue plus other historic tour homes in Vicksburg plan to remain open during the year for regular tours outside the scope of Tapestry, Stephenson said.
“It was down significantly,” Stephenson said, noting the sparser crowds the past three years. In 2012, the association said 1,175 people visited homes featured on the tour. In 2013, it slipped to about 1,000.
The event began as a re-branding of Pilgrimage, which for half a century offered traditional room-to-room tours of historic homes. To draw more visitors, association members said at the time the static tours would be supplemented by presentations unique to each tour stop, such as Civil War-era medical practices, perspectives on the slave trade and more. Those caught on sparingly, depending on the venue.
This year, the event expanded slightly in scope and funding. Thirteen tour homes and private residences were featured, including Balfour House, which was added to the schedule after years of being unoccupied. A handful of area restaurants and retail outlets had offered discounts to Tapestry ticketholders. Prices had remained consistent; $15 was good for one tour and a $30 ticket paid for tours of three houses.
The association’s original request to the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau of $1,200 to print 5,000 promotional brochures was upped to $2,500 for tour-specific literature at bureau chief Bill Seratt’s recommendation in February. Overall, the board spent about $20,000 on promotions that mentioned Tapestry throughout the year, Seratt said.
“We regret the decision,” Seratt said Thursday. “The VCVB has given the presenters all possible support we can.”
Stephenson said the VCVB’s funding was based on formulas geared to match expectations for visitorship and spending.
Betty Bullard, operator of the George Washington Ball House and VCVB advisory board member, said organizers ran into the same fatigue that had prompted the ’09 rebrand in the first place, plus something of a lack of spirit on the part of tour home owners.
“Frankly, everybody got tired of it,” Bullard said. “The VCVB will simply advertise the bed-and-breakfasts in their regular brochures as they have before.”
Bullard cited her own research of slavery a few years ago to highlight her home’s offering on the tour as an example of making the experience “breathe” for tour-goers.
“It is more than just polyester hoop skirts, but you can’t do it in shorts and flip-flops,” she said. “You’ve got to dress it up and make it breathe some.”
“The Vicksburg National Military Park is the best park in the United States and it’s the impetus of tourism in Vicksburg. I think it’s important to link (the tour stops) to the Siege of Vicksburg.”
Reasons for the end of the tours and the association didn’t end with poor visitorship, organizers said.
Recent property tax abatements approved by Vicksburg and Warren County governing boards outside the historic district rankled organizers’ feathers. Atwood Chevrolet and George Carr Buick Cadillac GMC were OK’d to have taxes abated for parts of their respective dealerships renovated in the past year and a half.
County officials said Thursday amounts released earlier this week referred to how much money each would save on the newly-remodeled sections of property and not, as first released, their total county tax bills. Those savings totaled $4,911.69 for Atwood and $2,625.13 for George Carr. The abatements are tied to improvements done to physical plants. Exemptions also exist for industries that purchase new equipment.
“Those were absolutely brand new to me,” Bullard said of the recently approved abatements, which in the past decade had been granted nearly exclusively in the historic district. The trend gave rise to the notion that the abatements were meant only for historic properties. In fact, state law specifies central business districts, historic preservation districts, business improvement districts, urban renewal districts and historic landmarks as areas where the exemptions are legal. Cities are given the latitude to define each as they see fit; counties generally follow cities’ lead. Bullard called the abatements for the car dealerships “startling.”
“If the tax assessor has determined the automobile dealerships can have a tax break, I’d suggest a lot of people need a tax break,” Bullard said.
In Vicksburg, additions to historic properties come with preservationists’ built-in hurdle of gaining the approval of the Vicksburg Board of Architectural Review. Still, Tapestry organizers lament what they see as a general lack of support locally for their business, despite more help from the VCVB for the most recent tour.
“We just can’t get anywhere with the city, the county or the VCVB,” said Harry Sharp, whose Duff Green Mansion was on the tour list but has shifted the site’s business away from being a bed and breakfast and more toward living space rental. Sharp, who serves on the review board and is a past member of both VCVB and Vicksburg Main Street, says he “absolutely” favors a special taxing district be created specifically for historic properties that would ease taxes on them. Such a district would require an act of the state Legislature. Properties in the historic district pay a special assessment on property taxes to fund Main Street.
Promoting springtime events will continue to be the toughest month for the tourism promotion board even without Tapestry, Seratt said.
“It’s very hard to advertise April, because you have that, RiverFest, the flea market and the (Alcorn State University) jazz festival,” Seratt said. “So, it’s a challenge for us. We’re not a presenting organization, we’re a promotional organization.”

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