ATHENS — City officials hope for an increase in tourism due to promotional efforts of the city tourism department and recent revamping of how the city disperses hotel/motel tax revenue.
A handful of entities that formerly received direct funding from the city's hotel/motel tax are required for the first time in fiscal year 2010-11 to submit funding proposals to the city's tourism department.
Athens officials created the department of tourism approximately 18 months ago and hired Darlene Forshage as director of tourism while restructuring the process for dispersal of revenue from the hotel/motel tax.
“Our goal is to increase tourism in our city,” City Manager Pam Burton said.
The tourism director and department generally promote tourism for the whole city with an underlying objective to increase heads and beds occupancy in hotels/motels, Ms. Burton said.
Under the reorganization, revenue from the hotel/motel tax goes to support the tourism department. The tourism director in turn decides whether to also fund from the tax revenue proposals submitted by a few designated entities for which the city budget earmarked tax revenue in the past.
Their funding can be used for promotion of individual attractions and events that would possibly result in an increase in heads and beds occupancy in hotels and motels, Ms. Burton said. No proposals have been turned down so far, she added.
As tourism director, Ms. Forshage said, “Everything is considered on a case-by-case basis when they make an application to us. We're looking at how those are funded for the best usage.”
In a thrust to build tourism and hotel occupancy, Ms. Forshage promotes tourism and also solicits groups to come to town, such as baseball tournaments, conventions, small meetings and family reunions.
“Right now,” she said, “our major focus is on the event, and attraction-based tourists.
She defined attraction-based tourists as people who come to the East Texas Arboretum, Athens Scuba Park, Texas Gospel Music Hall and Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center. Event-based tourists, she said, come to Athens for events such as a rodeo, a baseball tournament or the triathlon at Cain Center.
“It's fun to see their reaction to the attractions and things we can offer as a small community,” Ms. Forshage said.
The hotel/motel tax amounts to 7 percent of visitors' bill in a hotel or motel.
Originally, the city council voted to disperse the hotel/motel tax revenue according to requests. In fiscal year 2008-09, the city budget projected $245,731 total hotel/motel tax revenue. Of that, the budget shows $117,272 went to Cain Center; $63,450 to Athens Visitor Initiative Program, $42,300 to Henderson County Fair Park Complex; $6,011 to Henderson County Historical Society and $16,698 to East Texas Arboretum. During the 2009-10 budgeting process, the city council decided to create a city department of tourism and to retain the hotel/motel tax revenue, thereby having one dispersing entity. The tourism department was established January 2010.
City officials went ahead and channeled funding in fiscal year 2009-10 to entities that had been receiving the hotel/motel tax directly, with the exception of Athens Visitor Initiative Pro-gram, which no longer exists. Funds that would have gone to AVIP were used instead to fund a tourism director's position, Ms. Burton said.
Expenditures from hotel/-motel tax revenue in 2009-10 totaled approximately $218,560, according to the city budget. Of that, the budget showed, about $112,650 flowed through to entities funded in the past. Cain Center received about $72,475; Fair Park Complex, $26,142; the historical society, $3,715 and arboretum, $10,319.
Last Oct. 1 at start of the 2010-11 fiscal year, the city budget no longer specifically earmarked revenue from the hotel/motel tax to any of the entities that had received it.
Instead, the current budget projects $214,393 in hotel/motel tax revenue and allocates the funds for tourism in categories such as advertising, contractual services, personal services and other expenses.
“All the money was retained by the city and we continue to fund events, ads, promotions for all those entities, but it's just regulated through our department of tourism,” Ms. Burton said. ‘It's really a bookkeeping issue.”
The only difference, she said, is that if Cain Center, for instance, is having an event such as Texas Swing Festival, the Cain Center officials bring their marketing package to the tourism director and she works with them to create ads, place ads and pay for the ads.
The entities funded in the past now basically have a marketing director, who is the tourism director paid with the hotel/motel tax, Ms. Burton said.
“What we tried to do was take out all the paperwork for those entities and make it a simple process of marketing … put the entire burden on the tourism director and our finance director. It's an easier process for all those entities.” Ms. Burton said.
She added, “There's no set amount as to what we are going to give them; it's based on what their needs are … what they need to promote and what they request. It cuts down on the overhead because you've got one person administering it instead of every entity having a person dealing with it. We believe we are getting more bang for the buck with one person and one department.”
Fairly new as Cain Center director, Jean Riggs said she has no way of comparing the revamped system with the way that the hotel/motel tax revenue was previously dispersed.
“We feel like we have a good working relationship with the city. As far as I'm concerned, it seems like it (the new system) is working,” Ms. Riggs said. Several funding proposals for Cain Center have gone through the tourism department without any problem, she noted.
Teresa Glasgow, director, East Texas Arboretum, said she is not sure how the revamped system works and has not submitted any funding proposals.
While having to be more conservative on advertising, Ms. Glasgow said, “I'm looking at it in a positive light. It will take some stress off me when it gets going and I figure out how the system works. It's almost like having someone else work for me as far as the marketing part goes. I think she (the tourism director) is doing an awesome job. We're all for the betterment of Athens.”