Councilman Stuart Fleming said he isn’t taking a stab at the city’s museums, but questions if their subsidies are paying off.
City Council uses a portion of the revenue collected from its 8 percent hotel/motel tax for tourism grants, given each year to selected nonprofits in Marietta.
The Marietta Museum of History and Marietta-Cobb Museum of Art got the most funding last year of the nine programs that received grants.
A $128,579 tourism grant makes up 44 percent of the history museum’s $289,504 budget. Its director’s salary is paid for by the city’s general fund budget, along with the director of the city’s Gone with the Wind Museum.
About $50,927 was given to the art museum through a tourism grant, representing 17.6 percent of its $289,302 budget.
For every paying customer who enters the history museum, the tourism grant pays $19.11. That jumps to $24.38 for the art museum.
Museum membership costs range from $30 to $500 depending on the level of membership.
Both get the rest of their cash through admissions, memberships, sponsors, event space rentals and other fees and donations.
The Gone with the Wind Museum, Earl Smith Strand Theatre, Friends of Brown Park, Old Zion Baptist Church Heritage Museum, Georgia Ballet, Friends of Brumby Hall and Cobb Landmarks also received tourism grants last year.
The hotel/motel tax money given to the nine programs is regulated by state law and must be spent on promoting tourism in Marietta.
Telling history to the tune of $2 million
Fleming said he isn’t against tourism funding and he has not proposed any cuts or reductions in grants. For now, it’s just a discussion.
“My concern is not with any one particular museum,” Fleming said.
Still, he said a larger return on investment may be elsewhere.
Marietta has spent $2 million on the history museum alone over the last 10 years.
“I do think, in hindsight, few people would consider that the wisest investment,” Fleming said.
He pointed to other types of businesses, such as Pedicabs or trolleys, which may attract new visitors to the city.
Tourism grants can be given to nonprofit organizations but may not be used to subsidize for-profit companies, said city attorney Doug Haynie.
Fleming isn’t prepared to say whether or not the tourism grant recipients actually bring in new tourists, but said he wants to have a discussion about new ways to look at the city. It’s “about incubating new things,” he said, and re-evaluating if the city is getting bang for its buck.
“I’m not railing on these guys. If you told me right now, ‘Stuart, for the next 10 years you have $2 million,’ I think most taxpayers would say … ‘We don’t want to spend $2 million on the Museum of History. There are better ways to try to make our community relevant,’” Fleming said.
History museum grows despite cuts
Tourism grants to city nonprofits have been dwindling, said Jan Galt, director of operations for the history museum.
When she arrived at the museum in 2001, it was fully funded by hotel/motel tax money.
Now, tourism grants make up 44 percent of its budget.
Despite the cuts, she said the museum has seen significant growth. At one time, it took up the second floor of the Kennesaw House on the Marietta Square. It has since expanded to all three floors of the historic building.
“Like everybody else, we’ve had our struggles,” Galt said. “I won’t deny that.”
The museum, which contains collections worth $4.5 million, attracts visitors from outside Cobb and outside Georgia, Galt said.
School tours come from outside the metro area, including a group of eighth graders from LaGrange who comes every year.
That helps to boost sales for merchants and restaurateurs on the Marietta Square, Galt said. The museum doesn’t just promote itself, she said, it works to promote the city as a whole.
“We all feel very much that we are the face of the museum and we are the face of Marietta,” Galt said.
The city’s tourism grant helps the museum not only operate but expand and attract new demographics, such as the parents of young children or senior citizens, Galt said.
If that funding were cut in a significant way, she maintains it would be hard to provide the same services.
“I hate to use the word ‘devastating,’ but it would severely impact our ability to operate and continue to expand and grow,” Galt said.
Art director says museum brings tourists
Sally Macaulay, executive director of the art museum, agrees it would be difficult to carry on without the tourism grant.
“We can’t bring people into the museum on a daily basis like the Strand Theatre, which has movies and theater and things every day that they can charge to bring groups in,” Macaulay said.
The Strand received $33,500 from a tourism grant last year, which is 4.3 percent of its budget.
But she argues the art museum is carrying its weight.
Chalk artists traveled from California, Ohio, Texas and New York, among other states, for last year’s inaugural Marietta Chalkfest, Macaulay said. Artists from Arizona and Key West, Fla., visited the city for the opening of the “Realism at its Best” exhibit featuring paintings of Alexei Butirskiy and Edward Gordon.
Between April 2012 and April 2013, about 50 percent of the visitors to the art museum were from outside Georgia, she said.
Another 12 percent came from outside Cobb. Ten percent were from out of the country. Locals made up 24 percent of the museum’s visitation.
Many of those out-of-town guests stayed at the Marietta Hilton Conference Center, Macaulay said, and dined at local restaurants.
“We’re constantly thinking of ways to bring dollars and bring money and bring tourism into Marietta,” Macaulay said.
Some officials hesitant
Other City Council members aren’t as quick as Fleming to second guess the status quo in the city’s tourism grants.
Mayor Steve Tumlin said it’s always good to take another look at how the city spends its money.
“It’s raised a good point,” Tumlin said.
Yet he doesn’t think a “radical change” will be made in the way tourism grants are doled out.
Numbers can be misleading, Tumlin said, and there’s no “magic formula” to determining tourism success.
“I don’t know if the turnstile is the only way to measure if you’re attracting tourists,” Tumlin said. “If it was purely tourist attraction, we’d give it to Taste of Marietta. We’d give it to the concerts. We have some pretty good restaurants that draw people.”
If the Marietta Square had none of its cultural attractions, Tumlin said it would devolve into a shopping center.
“If we cut the Museum of History in half, we’d lose it. I think that’s reality,” Tumlin said.
Councilman Grif Chalfant says there is merit to the idea that a trolley or another alternative form of transportation could be funded with hotel/motel tax dollars, but he doesn’t support completely eliminating museum funding.
The talks may be early, said Councilwoman Michelle Cooper Kelly, because the city will enter preparations for its next fiscal year budget soon and more discussions with grant recipients are likely to take place.
“I think that will probably enlighten us,” Kelly said.
Councilmen Johnny Walker, Andy Morris and Philip Goldstein were also hesitant and said they need to do more research before making any decisions.
Total budget $289,504 budget
44 percent of budget from grant
$19.11 in grant money for every paying customer
Museum of Art:
Total budget $289,302
17.6 percent of budget from grant
$24.38 in grant money for every paying customer
Gone with the
Total budget $135,940
29.6 percent of budget from grant
$4.87 in grant money for every paying customer
Earl Smith Strand Theatre:
Total budget $773,265
4.3 percent of budget
$0.93 in grant money for every paying customer
Friends of Brown Park
Total budget $11,850
67.8 percent of budget
No paying customers
Old Zion Baptist Church Heritage MUSEUM
Total budget $21,700
20.7 percent of budget
$15 in grant money for
every paying customer
Total budget $752,439
0.4 percent of budget
$0.41 in grant money for every paying customer
Total budget $8,089
31.5 percent of budget
No paying customers
Total budget $155,800
1 percent of budget
$0.91 in grant money for every paying customer