At a special Jackson City Council meeting called just before the long Christmas weekend, Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba asked members to reauthorize the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau and double the tourist and convention tax that supports the bureau from 1 percent to 2 percent. JCVB's underlying hope was to get the tourist tax reauthorized at the Mississippi Legislature 2018 regular session to continue funding its operations—doubling the tax would have been a cake topper, bringing its likely revenue to about $7 million.
In the Thursday, Dec. 21, meeting, most of the council supported the notion of bringing in more revenue, but the doubled tax request brought strong opposition from two members. Ultimately, the council and the mayor decided they should opt for showing a unanimous vote to the Legislature when members grew concerned because the JCVB was not prepared to say how it planned to spend the additional $3.5 million.
'No Concrete Plans'
The JCVB now operates on a budget of about $3.5 million, all funded from the 1-percent tax. At the special council meeting, Ward 1 Councilman Ashby Foote asked JCVB CEO and President Wanda Wilson what her organization currently does with the $3.5 million and her plans for getting twice that amount due to the tourist-tax increase.
"Well, actually, there is no concrete plan right now," Wilson answered, adding that she wanted get the mayor's support for conducting a master tourism plan. Wilson listed general ideas including new business conventions, continued assistance for the Two Museums marketing materials and a potential NASCAR track opportunity.
Over the last three years, the JCVB has given Two Museums—the new Mississippi history and civil-rights museum duo—$200,000 to support its marketing efforts. As of the last two fiscal years, the JCVB has spent $1.4 million per year on personnel; it has 23 employees. The bulk of the budget, more than $2 million in the last two fiscal years, goes toward advertising, marketing, public relations and other promotional expenses. Also in the last two fiscal years, the JCVB has overspent its budget—in 2015-2016 it came in $31,558 over, and in 2016-2017 it was $456,643 dollars over budget.
Eventually, Wilson brought up "the elephant in the room," as she called it—the Jackson Rhythm and Blues Festival, the struggling and expensive JCVB-produced music event that she said her group would discontinue. The festival started in 2013 and was held outside in August in the Mississippi Ag Museum parking lot, but moved inside the Jackson Convention Center for the last two years.
Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes said that the City needs a festival and that he did not consider the JCVB to be "losers," but rather "pioneers."
"Ms. Wilson, Rome wasn't built in a day," Stokes said. "And although Jackson Rhythm and Blues Festival may not have the attendance that it should, I think it was a step in the right direction."
No Plan, No Increase
Ward 7 Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay was one of the outspoken members whose frustration with the proposal came from a clear lack of foresight for how the JCVB would use the additional funds.
Lumumba told council he does agree that "we would have benefitted from a more extensive plan," but that he and his administration have a "cache of ideas that would be helpful for the City of Jackson." The mayor also mentioned that NASCAR has interest in building a racetrack here and that JCVB is willing to assist in doing a study to move that forward.
"But I think we today are being irresponsible if we vote to increase this without having a plan," Lindsay said. "This cannot just be about ideas ...." Lindsay also mentioned that the council needed to know "long before this morning" how money from a tax increase was going to be spent before approving a tax increase.
The conversation in council chambers moved to comparing tax rates in surrounding communities that can charge nearly 5 percent on restaurant taxes.
"It's not fair that these little bedroom communities around Jackson can get 2 to 3 (percent) or more and the largest city can't get but one," Stokes said, adding that he would rather stay with the 1-percent tax request than lose the bureau.
Ward 2 Councilman Melvin Priester, Jr. pointed out that Jackson already charges 2 percent on restaurants and that increasing this JCVB tax would take it to 3 percent. "The issue is, what do we want to charge our businesses?" he asked
Ward 6 Councilman Aaron Banks complimented the JCVB's work and encouraged the council to take a risk. "I want to make sure we're on one page and that we don't allow fear to keep us from moving in the direction and waging what I would call a good fight," Banks said.
The council then voted unanimously to keep the 1-percent tax and ask the Mississippi Legislature to reinstate the bureau in the new session and allow the existing tax continue.
Ward 5 Councilman Charles Tillman was not present for the vote.
In April 2015, Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill that allowed a 1-percent tax on restaurants, hotels and motels to provide funds to the JCVB to carry out "programs and activities" that are "designed to attract conventions and tourists," the bill reads. The legislative session begins the first week of the year, and the body will need to approve continuing the 1-percent tax past July.
Email city reporter Ko Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect the proper number of employees at the JCVB: 23 as of January 2018.