At their first strategic planning meeting Saturday, board members criticized decisions by the council they say have kept the Visitors Bureau from expanding its outreach to attract tourists into the city.
The Visitors Bureau needs to better educate the City Council about efforts being taken and “let them cough up a few more dollars our way,” said board Vice President Beverly Kelly.
In June, the council allotted the Visitors Bureau $197,500, about $16,500 a month, from the city’s fiscal budget.
The tourism grant money is awarded yearly from hotel/motel and auto rental taxes, and accounts for 75 percent of the Visitors Bureau’s budget.
Guests staying at hotels in Marietta are charged an 8 percent tax, on top of the Cobb County sales tax, according to Katie Peterson, who became executive director of the Marietta Visitors Bureau in August.
Peterson said the Marietta Visitor’s Bureau has a low tax base compared to other cities, such as Sandy Springs, collecting $1.2 million, and Lawrenceville, $500,000.
Councilman Philip Goldstein serves as the appointed council representative on the Marietta Visitors Bureau Board of Directors.
He told the board Saturday part of the reason there is less money in Marietta is because some hotels and motels have been allowed to operate as extended-stay venues.
If a visitor stays for longer than 30 days, the room is no longer charged a hotel/motel tax, Goldstein said.
Goldstein said he has supported the City Council changing this policy, and it has been brought up numerous times with no success.
“I can tell you the city wants to see more hotels,” Goldstein told the board.
Help from bond money
Until there is more revenue generated from the hotel/motel tax, then expanding the Marietta Visitors Bureau’s allotment would cut into other organizations’ portions of the tourism grant pie.
Marietta does not funnel all of the grant funding into a visitors bureau like many other cities. Instead, other groups share in the tax revenue, such as The Georgia Ballet, The Earl Smith Strand Theatre and The Marietta Museum of History.
“Sometimes you get more bang for your buck that way,” Goldstein said.
This year’s grant amount awarded to all the groups was the same as last year, with nearly $115,000 remaining from the two years of revenue. The council will most likely dole out the excess for events celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War next spring and summer.
Kelly said the influx of visitors to Marietta during the commemorative events should generate a larger intake from the hotel/motel tax to be divided out.
“I hope that it will sweeten the pot next year,” Kelly said.
In the meantime, Peterson expressed concerns over the underproducing hotels around Marietta, including the more than 10 hotels along Delk Road and Franklin Road listed on the Visitor Center’s webpage on lodging.
The list includes the Quality Inn at 1255 Franklin Road, the Super 8 at 610 Franklin Road, and the Marietta Hotel, formerly a Comfort Inn, which offers $25-a-night rates.
Peterson told the board that tourists have said they are too scared to stay on Franklin Road.
Revitalize Marietta, founded by public policy strategists Heath Garrett and Mitch Hunter, is the advocacy group behind VOTE YES! MARIETTA, a campaign focused on passing the $68 million redevelopment bond that will be on the Nov. 5 ballot.
Most of the bond money would be spent to acquire and demolish 10 to 12 apartment complexes bordering Franklin Road, between Cobb Parkway and Interstate 75, to entice developers.
Garrett stopped by the board meeting during the lunch break Saturday and told the members that if the $68 million redevelopment bond passes, “then tourists will flood into Franklin Road.”
Goldstein said the development could take 5 to 15 years, and the $68 million bond could be focused on office complexes and residential development.
This was the first year for the Marietta Visitors Bureau Board of Directors to have a retreat, which could become an annual think-tank.
With the retirement in June of the Visitors Bureau’s former executive director of 29 years, Theresa Jenkins, it was a good chance to focus on the organization’s future, said Scott Wright, who has been on the board for two years.
Wright, who owns the advertising and marketing agency 524 Creative with his wife, April, said he wants someone from the board to be a presence at City Council meetings.
The board should be involved in discussions on building permits and rezoning to guide how open land around Marietta is being developed, Wright said.
By the time the board is updated by city staff, “the conversation has already happened and it is being told to us after the fact,” Wright said.
Wright has helped the Visitor’s Bureau with branding ideas and promoting events like the Taste of Marietta and The Marietta Pilgrimage, a Christmas tour of historic homes.
To continue advocating for tourism, the Visitors Bureau must operate like a business with multiple revenue streams, not just city funding, Wright said.
This could include selling advertising space on the website and printed materials, or allowing a company to be a sponsor of the Welcome Center, or even offering more merchandise, like a T-shirt that states, “It’s betta in Marietta.”