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HOPE — The future is looking brighter for the Hope Area Welcome Center, which just a few months ago looked like it might go out of business with the loss of $82,500 from its biggest revenue stream.
With a 6-4 vote, the county’s Visitors Information and
Promotion Commission decided in June that the 3-year-old Hope Area Welcome Center would receive no direct
funding from the innkeeper’s tax for 2014. Instead, the commission voted to give the Columbus Area Visitors Center total control of $1.32 million collected annually through the tax.
However, the larger Visitor Center has plans to set aside $45,000 to establish a satellite operation in Hope next year, said Lynn Lucas, executive director of the Columbus tourism agency. The expenditure can’t be given final approval until Bartholomew County government finalizes its own budget, as well as authorizes tax expenditures, Lucas said.
“Our goal is to keep the center open for the next year,” said Donna Robertson, past-president of the Hope Chamber of Commerce, who is responsible for the Hope center’s day-to-day operation.
She said it’s too soon to say whether the Hope office will remain operational beyond 2014.
“It’s very unusual that monies from the innkeeper’s tax were going to two separate visitors centers,” Lucas said. “But there are a few communities in Indiana that have launched satellite operations. That’s what we’re trying to do in Hope.”
While Robertson said she believes Lucas’ organization sincerely wants to help Hope, even a $45,000 grant — which represents a 45.4 percent drop in funding from this year — won’t guarantee a salary for the center’s two part-time staff members.
As a result, welcome center director Lori Robertson is looking for another job.
While admitting there hasn’t been much foot traffic, the center received between 75 to 100 telephone calls each day in the weeks leading up to September’s Hope Heritage Days, Lori Robertson said.
While acknowledging that alternative funding sources for nonprofits have dwindled across the country in recent years, Donna Robertson said it’s exceptionally hard to find philanthropic organizations willing to fund office and administrative expenses.
Nevertheless, a few organizations in Hope are considering assisting the welcome center, Robertson said. One is the Hope Chamber of Commerce, which may be asked to set aside some economic development funds for the center, she said.
And despite the loss of money from the innkeeper’s tax, the Hope Area Welcome Center does have some other developments working in its favor.
After subletting its former location, the organization now has a larger space that will allow the center to expand its gift store and increase revenues, Lori Robertson said.
In addition, its new landlord has agreed to allow it to stay rent-free for the first six months of next year, Donna Robertson said. And once the center resumes paying rent in July, the monthly payments will be lower than what it paid at its former location.
But many Hope residents don’t understand why the VIP commission refused to provide future direct funding, she said.
Last June, VIP Commission President Jeff Baker said the Hope Welcome Center had not generated the kind of progress in increasing tourism as had been anticipated.
In response, Lori Robertson said it takes a minimum of five years for most businesses and organizations to become fully established.
Due in part to the fact that local motels and hotels pay the tax, commission members traditionally have placed much emphasis on attracting visitors from outside a
50-mile radius of Bartholomew County who are more likely to seek overnight lodgings.
Judging from her talks with visitors, Donna Robertson said events in Hope attract visitors from Ohio, especially the Cincinnati area, as well as from Kentucky and other areas of Indiana.
“If somebody comes to Hope, they are going to stay in Shelbyville, Greensburg or Columbus,” she said. “We tell them about Columbus and push them in that direction. You would think the (VIP Commission) would want that.”
But what seems to bother the Robertsons more is that the fledgling welcome center is expected to spend large amounts of money on advertising or come up with
While the Columbus Area Visitors Center regularly collects that type of data, it also employs up to 19 full- or part-time staffers.
“It’s a ‘catch-22’ situation,” Donna Robertson said. “They won’t give us the money until we do it. But we can’t do it until they give us the money.”
Lucas said such tracking information is required by the state of Indiana as a condition of approving a county innkeeper’s tax, so the Columbus Visitors Center has no choice but to require the same data from grant
If the $45,000 grant for a satellite operation is approved, the town of Hope would have to agree to meet certain criteria in order to receive the money, Lucas said.
Although Columbus holds several themed events that are attractive to specific demographic groups, Hope wants to capitalize on its homey, small-town atmosphere, Donna Robertson said. Its plan is to provide more traditional Midwest fare that appeals to local and regional residents, as well as out-of-town visitors, she said.
The Hope Chamber of Commerce expects to schedule a number of one-on-one meetings later this year with northern Bartholomew County organizations to seek support for the Hope Area Welcome Center.
About the facility
Founded: 2010 as a project of the Hope Chamber of Commerce
New address: 621 Harrison St., Hope, IN 47246 (two doors north of former location)
Phone: 546-HOPE (4673)
Paid staff: Lori Robertson and Shelley Lange (both part time)
Hoping to have fun?
The number of annual events in Hope known to attract visitors has grown to include:
Hope Heritage Days
Arts and Antiques Fair
Hope Health Fair
Smoke on the Square BBQ
Goodies, Goblin and Ghost
Christmas of Yesteryear
Christmas Homes Tour
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