Carbondale seeks innovation for tourism program

Carbondale City Council’s decision not to renew its contract with the Carbondale Convention and Tourism Bureau opens the door for other organizations to provide tourism-related services to the city, Councilman Chris Wissmann said.

At its meeting May 1, City Council members voted 6-1 to deny funding to the bureau. The cut totaled $267,500 and will now be given to other organizations that can fulfill the council’s requirements for tourism.

Councilwoman Jane Adams said she voted against funding the bureau because its director, Debbie Moore, may have used her position to secure jobs for her daughter and a longtime friend.

Trace Brown, a member and past president of the bureau’s board of directors, said the board released Moore Wednesday at a special meeting because it couldn’t pay her salary without city funding.

He said the tourism bureau’s board didn’t have any particular problems with Moore.

“The bureau fulfilled its mission, which is to fill the hotels, and I think any problems the city had were with the director and not with the bureau,” Brown said.

Brown said he thought some people in the community confused the bureau’s role with the roles of other agencies such as the Chamber of Commerce or Carbondale Main Street.

The bureau’s mission, Brown said, isn’t to promote yard sales or brown bag lunches, but to keep money coming into the city’s coffers from the lodging tax, which in turn funds other civic groups’ initiatives.

Adams said the tourism bureau’s website was inadequate and didn’t do enough to portray the city as a tourist destination.

Councilman Don Monty said he had heard more negative comments from citizens about Moore’s performance as the bureau’s director than about any other recent issue, and he said he was concerned that taxpayers should be getting the services for their tax dollars.

Wissmann said city staff will ask the council to submit specific terms it wants included in a contract for tourism-related services.

The city staff will work out details of the plan after council members have clarified what they want to accomplish, measures they will use to determine fulfillment of the contracts and the cost, he said.

Wissmann said the city will request proposals from businesses and nonprofit organizations to fulfill either the entire contract or certain portions of it.

“There are millions of ways this could work,” Wissmann said.

A single agency could contract as an umbrella organization and be responsible for developing and coordinating a regional tourism plan, he said, or the council could decide to award contracts to 20 separate organizations to promote their activities individually.

One local business said it will act when the city requests proposals.

Jim Zimmerman, founder and president of Escape Locally, a regional web-based tourism business located in downtown Carbondale, said his company is ready to provide tourism services to the city through its technology-based marketing.

“Carbondale is the gateway to southern Illinois, but the word is not getting out,” he said.

Escape Locally, which held its ribbon cutting ceremony last month, has created a database of activities such as hiking, kayaking, the wine trails and local festivals that draw tourists from other parts of Illinois and from neighboring states to the region, he said.

“We have the ability to focus on all of southern Illinois,” Zimmerman said. “It seems like Carbondale could play a much more proactive role in promoting tourism for the whole region.”

Brown said the bureau also will likely submit a proposal.

Jackson County generated $61.2 million from tourism in 2010, which was up 5.3 percent from the previous year, according to figures compiled by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.  The department has not released figures from 2011.

Meghan Cole, executive director of Carbondale Main Street, said it was unclear at this time if her organization would submit a proposal, and it would likely do so only if the proposal fit its mission of improving the economic and cultural climate of the downtown area.

“We’re already the unofficial visitor center for Carbondale,” she said. “We get 15 visitors a day, and we have a hand in almost all of the events in downtown Carbondale.”

Wissmann said he didn’t take his decision lightly to vote against renewing the city’s contract with the Carbondale Convention and Tourism Bureau.

He said he thought the bureau goaded the council into publicly firing its director when it voted in March to double the size of its board. The bureau’s board increased from 15 voting members to 29, and Wissmann said it was to dilute the influence of eight city-appointed members.

He is concerned about the bureau’s two employees who had no responsibility for the actions of the director and the board, he said, and who are now possibly out of a job.

He said he thinks the council made the right decision and doesn’t think the city will see a measurable decrease in economic activity.

“I don’t think we’re going to lose a single step as a result of the loss of CCBT,” Wissmann said.

 



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