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Innkeeper’s tax goes to center in Columbus

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More than $1 million in Bartholomew County innkeeper’s tax proceeds are expected to go to the Columbus Area Visitors Center for the second year in a row.

The Bartholomew County Convention, Recreation and Visitor Promotion Commission voted 6-4 Monday to give all the tourism revenue allocated for next year — $1.2 million — to the center, which had requested $1.3 million for 2015.

A projected 4.8 percent reduction in tax revenue is mostly due to lower occupancy levels at local motels and hotels resulting from reduced military activity at nearby Camp Atterbury, as well as corporate travel cutbacks and an unclear economic picture, commission treasurer Robin Hilber said.

The innkeeper’s tax is assessed by adding 5 cents to every dollar spent on hotel stays lasting less than 30 days.

The motion to direct all funds to the Visitors Center, made by commission member Martha Conway-Risk, included what she described as a suggestion that the Visitors Center continue to work with groups in the Hope area to create a satellite operation.

The Visitors Center is considering an application by Heritage of Hope Inc. — which sponsors the long-running Hope Heritage Days and other events — to create a satellite operation in the northeast Bartholomew County community to increase countywide tourism.

Hope center request rejected

The 4-year-old Hope Area Welcome Center requested $88,500 for 2015 from innkeeper’s receipts, including $45,000 for advertising and promotions. But the county commission declined to give the center any direct funding for a second straight year.

It had received $130,500 combined for 2012 and 2013.

The welcome center will be splitting off from the Hope Area Chamber of Commerce into a separate organization in 2015, chamber president Chad Swank told the commission. That would address a concern of commission president Denise Pence.

The tourism office has been using the chamber’s tax-exempt status reserved for politically active organizations such as business leagues and real estate boards, as well as chambers of commerce. Swank said the welcome center is applying to be designated as an independent, tax-exempt non-profit organization.

Beside having its own website that Swank said may be available within a few weeks, Swank said the welcome center will also have its own director when it breaks off on its own. Swank said it’s too soon to say whether that will be a full-time or part-time position, or whether there will be additional staff.

The Hope Town Board this year is providing the welcome center with $6,000 every three months from economic development income tax funds to pay for the center’s operating expenses.

The welcome center is also receiving $200 a month from the chamber to help pay for expenses and staff shared by the two organizations, Swank said.

The center’s office manager, Lori Robertson, who performs clerical work for both the chamber and the welcome center, is leaving at the end of June for a new job, Swank told the commission.

A number of commission members asked about the $40,000 set aside in the Visitors Center 2014 budget for a satellite operation that Heritage of Hope wants to receive.

Swank said the welcome center had applied for those same funds, but representatives were told last March they should instead apply for a marketing grant that the welcome center did not seek, Swank said.

Without direct support through the innkeeper’s tax, the welcome center will seek funding elsewhere, Swank said.

“No matter how difficult it may be, we may be forced to seek that (funding) outside Bartholomew County,” he said.

Satellite operation outlook

The Visitors Center met with Heritage of Hope three times about becoming a satellite operation, but it’s still possible that no Hope organization will receive those funds, Visitors Center Board President Al Degner said.

The center continues to study options to create sustainable long-term ways to promote countywide tourism, Degner said.

That includes setting up interactive electronic kiosks at countywide locations that are popular with visitors, he said.

Besides $40,000 for a satellite operation, the Visitors Center has also set aside the same amount for kiosks as a line item in its 2014 operating budget.

Potential locations for those kiosks include Hope, the Edinburgh Premium Outlets, Ceraland Park, Hamilton Center Ice Arena, and downtown Columbus, Visitors Center Executive Director Lynn Lucas said.

If the Visitors Center board decides against a satellite location, the center would put that money into other efforts throughout the county, Degner told the commission.

Options might be to increase money available for marketing grants or sponsorship activities that could draw in more overnight guests, Degner said.

Another consideration might be to obtain more kiosks, Lucas said.

But Conway-Risk said she still wants to see the Hope area receive funds to market its activities.

“They are very proud of their community and they want to promote it,” Conway-Risk said. “I don’t think that this is unreasonable.”

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