By Mayor Billy Keyserling
One of the most important lessons I learned while working in DC, through my training as a mediator and serving the public, is that we must separate the WHO from the WHAT.
When we focus on the What, we are more likely to get to the root of the problem, enhance communication, and learn from each other and move forward in directions with which most will agree.
It would be very easy, in reading the following essay, to get focused on who did or did not do something, rather than the systemic issue I am writing about. So please bear with me and stick to the ideas and not the organizations, as I am not pointing fingers, laying blame of suggesting that I have all of the answers.
At the same time this is about an important and necessary conversation that affects taxpayer dollars and the general health of our special hometown.
Is it good stewardship for Beaufort City Council to invest limited city dollars thinly among two Chambers of Commerce and three visitors’ guides, while splitting the remainder of (about $50,000) among other worthwhile organizations for whom there are never enough money to meet their objectives?
Is it good stewardship when City Council does not coordinate with County Council, which has its own process, to ensure there is no duplication while collectively investing about $500,000 a year in tourism marketing?
I think not!
While I have no magic answers, I think it is time to face this question to make sure we spend your tax dollars in the best possible manner. For Beaufort to remain a sustainable hometown we need a balance between those who live here, those who are actively retired and those who visit and one day may relocate or send others to visit. This is to say that marketing Beaufort is very important to all of us.
During my four previous years on City Council and the three that I have been mayor, members of council have not been happy with the status quo. While accepting and generally supporting recommendations from the city’s Tourism Development Advisory Committee (TDAC), every year we’ve asked them to bring back a more effective and better coordinated ways to do what we all want … providing the most effective marketing programs limited dollars can buy.
But year after year, TDAC comes back to council with the same requests from the same organizations, who want to do the same thing, while few have exhibited an ability to work together toward a more integrated marketing program. Between our DMO and City Council, I do not believe we have given this volunteer group the guidelines for ensuring this and they have not seemingly created their own.
My concern was compounded when the Chamber of Commerce, which is currently Designated Marketing Organization (DMO for the city and county) which gets TDAC funding as well as a supplement from the state, had an identity crisis, first spinning off an independent Visitors and Convention Bureau and within months taking it back under its wings with a still divided Chamber Board of Directors whose members, seemingly, in disagreement about how to market Beaufort with limited dollars.
And this concern was even further compounded when I heard the same concerns from County Council members though they seem more concerned about fiscal accountability than what I believe what I believe have been inefficient investments.
We can do better.
That is why I proposed assembling a group of experienced stakeholders to recommend a more efficient strategy to stretch the thin dollars, get rid of duplication and integrate fragmented marketing efforts. The group will exist for no more than several months and will make recommendations to Council which has the ultimate responsibility for decisions. Members will include those with professional marketing experience, members of TDAC, small and large businesses and representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and Main Street among others. I hope a representative from County Council who represents a district north of the Broad River should be included as they have their separate but similar funding process.
The goal is not to exclude, but to widen the circle seeking answers heretofore not provided.
The optimal result is for the chamber (DMO) to regain public confidence, assume a stronger and more collaborative role in leading efforts to market our wonderful community and to let council get on with our other business with the confidence that taxpayer dollars are being invested effectively.
No doubt, this is a very complicated issue because we must comply with an out-of-date state law that governs the expenditures and the distribution process, a growing number of organizations promoting Beaufort and an unintended disconnect between the county and city allocating funds to the same organizations with little if any coordination.
If not now, when do we try to get a handle on the issue?
From where do the dollars flow?
Few would expect a city of only 12,000 people, most of whom are moderate to low income, almost half of whom are renters, to have available dollars for large scale marketing. Most of the city’s direct “tourism investments” come in the form of keeping Beaufort beautiful, safe and inviting.
State law requires provides limited ATAX dollars, some of which go directly — at the city’s and county’s direction — to the DMO while others are handed out by the TDAC, but these funds must be invested to market Beaufort to prospects that live outside of a 50 mile radius of the city.
If each hotel and restaurant contacted each of its past guests and those on their prospect lists and incented a return visit, we would likely meet the state requirement, which is to put more heads in beds, fill more seats in restaurants and generate even more ATAX and hospitality dollars each year so there would be more to invest in the same way the next year.
While this approach would clearly meet state requirements, reward those who raise the marketing dollars through taxes added to their fares and likely generate more visitors to Beaufort than the previous year, is that all we want from our investment? While we of course we want to fill beds and have successful restaurants, we need to package and offer more of the assets of our community to get those people here.
In addition to the state dollars directed to the DMO, the city is granted modest dollars to spread out among a large number of small organizations to supplement what the chamber does. When these groups line up before the city’s TDAC, they generally ask for about two times the available amount. Furthermore, there is no requirement that the groups awarded dollars complement each others efforts and/or coordinate with the chamber’s seasonal campaigns.
The result is we partially fund three visitors’ guides; organizations focus on their own programs without regard for helping others and a fragmented approach to investing public dollars is not as effective as it could be.
Is that what marketing Beaufort should be all about? I think not.
My personal view is that most who visit us, among them the many who return to live here, come to Beaufort because we are who we are: an historically beautiful waterfront community, with a wide assortment of outdoor sports, a rich history and unique complement of cultural activities and the special and diversity of a real hometown, that is fortunate to host marine corps graduations and a renowned ocean side state park.
The alignment of the question as to who is in charge of marketing for the chamber and the fragmentation of public investments leads me to believe it is time for a change.
We must get a better handle on marketing so we invest in initiatives that ensure taxpayers, and especially businesses that are taxed at a higher rate than we would like, get more.
If not now, when? Let’s get to work!