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Volunteers who run the Hope Area Welcome Center to promote tourism in the small town northeast of Columbus likely won’t get an 11th-hour budget boost from the Bartholomew County Council to keep the center’s doors open next year.
Instead, council members said Welcome Center proponents will have to seek up to $40,000 for their operations by applying for funds with the Columbus Area Visitors Center, a much larger and professionally run group that controls the use of $1.32 million per year collected through the county’s innkeepers’ tax.
Hope Chamber of Commerce officials had hoped the County Council would override an earlier recommendation by the Visitors Information and Promotion Commission granting the Columbus Area Visitors Center total control of how the tourism tax money gets spent next year. Hope had made a pitch in June to get $92,400 of the money put directly into its coffers. In 2012 and 2013, the Hope Welcome Center had directly received $48,000 and $82,500 from innkeepers’ tax proceeds, respectively.
But that’s unlikely to happen this fall when the County Council votes on a final 2014 budget document, Council President Jorge Morales said Friday as the seven-member body entered its third day of analyzing 2014 departmental budget requests.
“The dollars for tourism are getting smaller and smaller in many parts of the state, and we need to maximize how we use the innkeepers’ tax,” Morales said. “We need to work together and not be divisive. The thing that most people see when they visit is the Columbus Area Visitors Center. I don’t see us reallocating the money. I don’t think we can do that.”
Morales said Hope Chamber of Commerce officials will have to cooperate with the Columbus Area Visitors Center to get a share of the county’s funds.
“It may be frustrating to the people in Hope, but I agree with the concept of one agency deciding how to spend the money and divvying it out,” council member Chris Ogle said.
Donna Robertson, past president of the Hope Chamber of Commerce and a Welcome Center liaison, said Friday that the Hope Welcome Center has enough money to operate through Dec. 31. It will seek funds from the Columbus Area Visitors Center for 2014 as soon as the process for doing that is fully explained.
“We’re a group of volunteers and amateurs,” Robertson said. “They basically told us we are amateurs, so we’ll have to deal with that and do what we can to appease them. And, yes, we’re being told there is some money in the (tourism budget) we can seek. But we don’t know exactly how much or what the requirements will be.”
Even if Hope were to be granted $40,000 for 2014, it would be less than half of the amount the small town received this year and originally sought for 2014.
“We’re going to struggle to handle the same amount of projects and marketing events,” Robertson said. She said Hope’s Welcome Center will “do the best we can.”
Lynn Lucas, executive director of the Columbus Area Visitors Center, said her agency is willing to work with smaller communities to promote their events and boost tourism for the entire county.
“Our board’s finance committee has already made a recommendation that we put up to $40,000 in our draft budget to fund satellite operations like Hope, Taylorsville, Azalia,” Lucas said Friday. “Our message is if the folks in Hope with the Chamber/Welcome Center come to us and give us a business plan, we’ll consider helping them develop the Welcome Center.”
Lucas said the Columbus Area Visitors Center also plans to install a series of electronic kiosks next year in key spots throughout Bartholomew County.
“We’d seriously consider putting one of those in Hope,” Lucas said.
There also are other grants nonprofits can access to help them market specific events or festivals in small communities that bring in tourists, Lucas said. In fact, the Columbus Area Visitors Center soon will consider making a grant to Hope for its Hope Heritage Days, coming up Sept. 27 to 29.
“We continue to market the entire county,” Lucas added. “Hopefully, the folks in Hope will let us help them.”
Lucas said complete details of possible funding for Hope or other satellite projects will have to wait until the 2014 budget gets finalized later this year.
The County Council will conduct two public hearings on the budget in September and October. A vote on the final budget will take place in October. The council also is grappling with trying to trim $1.7 million from more than $18.4 million of budget requests from all the county departments.
The squabble about whether the Hope Welcome Center, which opened in 2010, gets a chunk of the hotel-motel tax revenue has played out in public meetings and in the media since early summer. The Visitors Information and Promotion Commission had given Hope money each of the past two years, but decided against a 2014 allocation on a 6-4 vote in June.
Robertson called that decision unfair and said the Welcome Center would have to shut down in January without more money to operate. The Hope Area Welcome Center currently rents one room at 613 Harrison St.
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