During the Fort Scott City Commission meeting Tuesday evening, the commission voted unanimously to remove the responsibilities of tourism from the Fort Scott Area Chamber of Commerce and put it back in the hands of the city staff.
“This is not about the city versus the chamber,” City Manager Dave Martin said, adding they plan to continue working very closely with the chamber. “It’s about moving the city forward.”
Martin said the issue has been a concern for a number of residents for a while. After recently hearing from those residents directly, the commission decided to bring the issue to the table and determine how to proceed.
By becoming responsible for the tourism of Fort Scott, Martin said the city would be able to hire a full-time tourism director, providing benefits and a competitive wage, something the chamber has not had the finances to do.
A number of business leaders and other residents spoke both in favor and in opposition to the change during the meeting.
“Tourism has been an integral part of the chamber for decades,” chamber executive director Lindsay Madison said, listing the accomplishments recently made in publicizing the many attractions the city offers.
Chamber board member Reta Baker pointed out that in recent years, the chamber has succeeded in increasing the revenue from the transient guest tax from about $44,000 annually to more than $150,000 in the latest report. In the current model, it is the chamber that collects that tax and uses a portion of it annually for their budget through an agreement with the city.
Business owner Bill Michaud said, despite that drastic increase of revenue, the funds from the chamber’s contract with the city have had a much smaller increase.
Martin responded by saying the city provides what the chamber budgets for, and could provide more based on their requests. Financial Director Jon Garrison said of the more than $150,000 in transient guest tax raised the previous year, about $42,000 was from one business that had not paid that tax in some years. Garrison said the average is usually closer to $120,000, and all of that is available to the chamber per their request.
Business owner Bobbie Duncan said he does not believe tourism works under the direction of the chamber, since the chamber’s efforts are driven toward supporting their members. Duncan also pointed out the chamber is not under any public records act, as the city is.
“Tax revenue that’s received by our town should not be used to promote any narrow interest, but instead should be used to promote the whole of our community,” Duncan said, saying it should not be used by a private interest group.
“The inherent obligation of a chamber is to its members,” Arnold Schofield agreed. “The inherent obligation of the city is to the entire population and to all the businesses in the city.”
Larry Nuss recalled a time when the city controlled the local historic site, before it became a part of the National Parks Service. Nuss said when it did become a national historic site, the city was grateful to hand over the responsibility of running it.
“I think you should carefully consider this issue before you get back into the tourism business,” Nuss said.
Don Miller said he believes hiring someone with the skill, knowledge, contacts and time to run the tourism department will make the difference the city is looking for.
“The chamber does a great job promoting a lot of things, but I think we miss a lot of things,” Miller said. “When you don’t have a leader that’s focused, you don’t have a project that’s moving forward.”
The commission unanimously voted to put tourism under the city’s direction and to draft a letter informing the chamber it would have 60 days to sign over the collection of the transient guest tax. That decision is to be reexamined annually to make sure it is working as planned.
Martin said the city plans to form a task group to help with the transition. The chamber also plans to revisit their plan.