TDC strategic plan put on hold

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By Alice Du Pont

The strategic plan presented by the Gadsden County Tourist Development Council to the Gadsden County Board of Commissioners has been put on hold for the time being.

The 72-page document was presented by TDC members Hement Patel and Jeff Dubree, who gave a PowerPoint presentation briefly outlining the plan’s main points.

The plan was originally set for a public hearing during the Nov. 3 regular meeting but Planning and Growth Director Howard Douglas requested the item be moved to general business because he felt the TDC wasn't ready for a public hearing and needed to do more work on the document. The problem, according to Douglas, was improper advertising of the public hearing.

The TDC is made up of volunteers and relies on county personnel. The mixup came when no one was designated to advertise the meetings. County Administrator Johnny Williams said in recent weeks county personnel should have advertised the meetings, but dropped the ball.

Alana Rich, who has years of experience in tourism and working with area tourist development councils and is general manager of The Gadsden County Times, said she had strong reservations and gave commissioners a list of her concerns.

Those items of concern included a detailed marketing plan that TDC representatives said will come after the strategic plan is approved by county commissioners. Rich noted pages 9, 11-23 and 25, which offered exact details of a marketing plan, including costs. Page 20 states, “This plan contains a recommended advertising placement plan for 2009-2010."

Additionally, Rich showed council members the 31-page grant application included in the plan and the approval requested from commissioners for expenditures up to $5,000 at a time, without approval from commissioners.

"There is no cap or number limit to this request. They could spend 5 grand a week with no one's oversight," Rich said.

“The plan, as it stands, includes too many ideas and items for the funds available (in reserve) and projected. The TDC vote to approve was not advertised to the public. TDC members want to blame the county for this, but with four elected officials sitting on the TDC, they should have known better,"  Rich added.

Rich also pointed out the omission of the Quincy Music Theatre, Quincy MusicFest/Barbecue and Blues and the Gadsden Arts Center from the plan’s list of the county’s most viable tourism assets.

Grace Maloy, Gadsden Arts Center executive director, also attended the meeting and addressed the board. Commissioners Brenda Holt and Sherrie Taylor directed the TDC to include Maloy in future discussions regarding the plan.

Helen Robinson, owner of Miss Helen's Cafe D'Art, said she heard of the plan the day of the meeting.  Her concern was a proposed 1-percent tax on restaurants included in the plan.

"There are about 30 eating places, independently owned and 11 franchises. We would like to have the restaurant tax removed. We don't want it in the plan. You can tax the franchises because they have the money. They're practically giving away food," Robinson said.

But it was Leonard Robinson, Helen's husband, who questioned how the TDC and the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce, which both accept public funds, could author a document such as this and post a disclaimer on the front of the document.

"The contents of this draft document are confidential and the exclusive property of the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce. It may not be used by anyone other that the Tourist Development Council, not may it be copied, duplicated, recited, referred to, read and quoted in any way without the expressed written consent of the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce. If you wish to use this document in any way, please contact the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce," the disclaimer reads.

David Gardner, chamber executive director, said the disclaimer was never intended to exclude anyone but was an effort to prevent copies from being distributed widely in the community and causing confusion.

"Does the TDC work for the chamber? Who is the chamber to say who can read the document and e-mail?" Leonard Robinson asked.

"The plan was put together to present ideas. We're opposed to any tax on restaurants. We were just trying to avoid a lot of copies out there," Patel said.

Holt reminded Gardner that  any organization which receives public funds is obligated to open any document to the public. So far this year, the chamber has been given $100,000 from the commission.

"That disclaimer really bothers me. It really doesn't look good to the public," Holt said.

Commissioner Gene Morgan, who is a member of the chamber’s board of directors, said the reason people are interested in the plan is because the word has gotten out there is money available though the TDC.

"We have no intent to funnel any money into our pockets," said Patel.

Commissioners will take another look at the plan and hold a public hearing during the Dec. 1 regular meeting. Rich was also asked to provide Douglas with a list of her concerns which will be considered before the document is approved.            

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