The Board of Commissioners gave their approval Tuesday to terms and conditions of an agreement between St. Johns County and St. Johns Cultural Council, Inc. to market St. Johns County as an art, cultural and heritage tourist destination through September 30, 2014.
The agreement was awarded to establish a framework within which the County can hire the Cultural Council to provide specific services and be paid from what most Historic City News readers refer to as “the bed tax”.
The 27-page agenda item was presented to the commission by Glenn Hastings; who is the Executive Director of St. Johns County’s Tourist Development Council. Hastings gave Historic City News editor Michael Gold an interview following the meeting; excerpts of which are included in this article.
Hastings has a thirty-year background in tourism, oversees the local government agency that administers millions of dollars in tourist development funds, the volunteer-appointed Category II Funding Panel and TDC Board, as well as the two non-profit entities who handle those funds — the Visitor’s Convention Bureau and the St. Johns Cultural Council.
If you are not part of the tourism industry, you may not understand the differences between these agencies and corporations, and, if you are and you do, you may be in the minority — it can be confusing.
Aside from private non-profit advocacy groups, like the St. Augustine and St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce, which also markets our area as a tourist destination and sells “memberships” to finance the majority of its operations, the Visitor’s Convention Bureau receives the majority of its funding from the County — even though is sells “partnerships” and has a volunteer-elected board.
Gold put Hastings on point about the obvious and apparent overlaps and what will be gained by “adding and additional layer” by contracting with the Cultural Council. Hastings explained that the Visitor’s Convention Bureau is focused on “mass media publicity” including Internet, travel magazines, television programming, etc. The Cultural Council will be expected to use its contacts and resources to plan and deliver mission-specific events in the areas of arts, cultural and heritage tourism.
The agreement spells out that the Cultural Council must “collaborate with County staff and the St. Johns County Visitors and Convention Bureau to market, advertise and promote, throughout the state, nation and world, the arts, culture and heritage related attractions and activities within St. Johns County for the purpose of attracting tourists to the County.”
Currently, applicants for bed tax money, used to finance the promotion of their qualified event, present their request to the Category II Funding Panel. Hastings says that this panel, at least initially, will continue their mission to investigate the merits of each proposal and determine the values of those applications. They make those recommendations to the TDC Board.
Generally, the TDC Board has approved those requests; Hastings remarked that the sentiment is often that the Funding Panel had done such thorough prequalification that few further questions were necessary.
But the process is not over, just yet. The TDC Board approval must still go before the Board of County Commissioners before any money changes hands — even though those funds are ear-marked specifically for qualified tourism promotion and it is illegal to use them for anything else.
Arts, cultural and heritage tourism grants can be suggested to the TDC Board by the Cultural Council, as well; under the new agreement. So long as the Category II Funding Panel remains in place, it is not clear if the Cultural Council grant requests will also have to pass their scrutiny. Hastings told Historic City News that those processes are “fluid” and still to be worked out. The Cultural Council will have four months after they get started to provide Hasting’s office with a draft copy of revised Arts and Culture grant application guidelines, policies and procedures for final approval.
So, what about the reported $1 million a year in bed tax that will be sent the Cultural Council’s way?
Hastings explained in his presentation that, in addition to certain “reserves” that require county commission approval, there are specific “expense categories” that can be reimbursed to the Cultural Council, including:
• 53100 Professional Fees / Research
• 53120 Contractual Service
• 53150 Consulting Services
• 53702 JIA Visitor Information Center
• 54000 Travel & Per Diem
• 54010 Trade Shows / Conventions (Registrations)
• 54100 Communications
• 54102 Inquiry Services
• 54110 Postage
• 54112 Brochure Distributions
• 54300 Utilities
• 54400 Lease / Rental Equipment
• 54401 Lease / Rental Building
• 54500 Insurance (Building/Equipment/Furnishings) (Not Liability Or Board)
• 54601 Equipment Maintenance
• 54804 Public Relation Services
• 54805 In House Public Relations
• 54605 Sales Missions
• 54900 Advertising (Agency Fees, Media, Promotions)
• 55100 Office Supplies
• 55401 Training
• 55405 Dues/ Membership
• 56401 Office Equipment
• 54603 Computer Equipment
Payment of these expenses is a deduction from the $1 million dollar grant pool before any grants are funded. Hastings says that, at this time, there are no restrictions on what percentage of the bed taxes collected can be used for “administrative” cost.
“We’d certainly like to see as much of the money going to actual promotion of the County and not overhead,” Hastings said. “That said, there will be new costs deducted from those funds by the Cultural Council that we do not have now. We are hoping to make up in efficiencies what we are going to pay in administration.”
The Cultural Council is likely doing things to accommodate the agreement now; however, according to Hastings, they aren’t being paid to do it, yet. They now have six months to notify Hastings’ office that they have secured adequate resources, including a qualified executive and support staff, to perform the services described.
At that time, the Cultural Council will have four additional months to:
• Obtain final approval from the TDC of a five (5) year Strategic Plan for the development of arts, culture and heritage related initiatives and programs
• Obtain final approval from the TDC of a twelve (12) month marketing plan, with corresponding budget, for Arts and Culture programs and events designed to attract tourists to the County.
• Obtain final approval from the TDC of accountability measures for Arts and Culture sponsored programs and events.
• Conduct educational workshops to provide advice and guidance to applicants who are interested in, applied for or have received Arts and Culture grant funding for programs and events.
“It can’t be vague,” Hastings said. The comprehensive marketing plan shall include a set of specific actions to increase the number of room nights spent in the County.
A panel scored the Cultural Council higher against the University of Florida to receive this agreement. It was clear that, in certain areas such as financial strength and staying power, comparing the Cultural Council to the University was like comparing David to Goliath. Historic City News readers have been asking how the Cultural Council stood a chance. Hastings’ opinion — passion. “The Cultural Council showed a lot of passion in their application,” Hastings said. He agreed with Gold’s opinion that the University’s proposal was scholarly and professional and that the University possesses better resources to develop marketing plans and budgets; however, it was short on passion.
When asked his overall impression, Hastings told Historic City News that he feels like he’s working with a “good contract” that has plenty of “safeguards”. When asked if he believed the Cultural Council could perform as well as others in the area of heritage tourism, or, if he believed that they would be more focused on “arts and culture” for which they are better known, Hastings explained that he was hopeful.
Hastings admitted that there will be promotion areas where the Visitor’s Convention Bureau will have strengths — they’ve been here longer, had better financing and developed long term buy-in. “The Cultural Council wants this agreement,” Hastings said. “I hope they realize that it has its burdens.” According to Hastings, he’s prepared for what lies ahead. The TDC Board has high hopes and expectations that the Cultural Council can make good on delivering strong value from its membership base and tourism contacts.
Photo credits: © 2011 Historic City News staff photographer