By Rick Kennedy, managing editor
Money issues both short-term and long-term were the predominate topics of discussion in a 90-minute meeting of the Hope Tourism Commission on Thursday afternoon.
Although good news on 2019 tourism revenues being up was unveiled by Tourism Director Paul Henley, the conversation quickly turned to outstanding collections, and the fact, that some local establishments were either behind in payment, or had not paid at all, including for the previous year in 2018.
Henley said he was preparing to deliver certain businesses a past due notice personally and try to make personal contact with owners or managers.
Don Still, one of three Hope City board members on the Commission, called for a “chain of events” to be implemented, leading to possible involvement by the City Attorney Joe Short.
Henley noted that in Hot Springs, he had observed that delinquent taxpayers, including some restaurants, had been listed in the local newspaper there. He suggested that Hope may consider a similar idea.
Hope Police Chief J.R. Wilson, who was also present Thursday, advised that the original Tourism Tax was implemented through a city ordinance, and he cited other city ordinances often carried a “mechanism to enforce the law.”
“Is there a mechanism for failure to pay?” Wilson asked. He suggested that the Hope City Board may need to revisit the ordinance to address enforcement. Wilson added that the issue could be dealt with as either a civil matter, or possibly a criminal offense, if entities were found to be “intentionally collecting the tax but not properly paying it.”
Still suggested that the issue may be taken up on the agenda of the next Hope City Board meeting.
Hope Mayor Steve Montgomery offered that at one time consideration was given to a “City Restaurant Operating Permit,” which he said some cities had, but Hope never implemented.
The prevailing sentiment was that a final letter may be directed to the past due accounts from the Commission itself, then a letter from the City Attorney, and followed-up by a release of names to local media outlets.
For years, the Hope Tourism Commission has collected a tax on restaurants within the City of Hope serving cooked (or prepared) food as well as hotel rooms, and in 2016, what has been known locally as the “Hamburger Tax,” was doubled from one-cent to two-cents by the Hope City Board, which effectively doubled the revenue and budget of the Hope Tourism Commission.
In approximate numbers, the 2016 tax hike meant a jump from $220,000 a year to $440,000 in revenue going to the Tourism Commission for promotion and facility upgrade purposes.
Restaurants and hotels in Hope are expected to both charge the tax to customers, collect the funds, and then pay the money to the Commission, making these particular entities defacto “Tax Collectors” as Henley referred to them several times Thursday as well as previously in the past.
Money, or lack thereof, was also on the minds of two Hempstead County officials who made an appearance at the Tourism Commission on Thursday afternoon.
Justice James Griffin of the Hempstead County Quorum Court along with Keith Sullivan of the Hempstead County Sheriff’s Department made an appeal for financial assistance, expressing concerns about the so-called “Hillarosa Mud Nationals,” set to take place near Blevins later this month.
Concerned about having adequate law enforcement on the ground both inside the event and outside, both Griffin and Sullivan emphasized public safety obligations weighing against the cost of manpower.
A figure of $5,200 was cited by Sullivan as needed for extra hours for extra deputies, and Griffin, who has the City of Hope as part of his District 1, cited stress on the Sheriff’s budget. Griffin asked if the Tourism Commission could contribute half, and another organization, like Great Southwest pay the other half. Henley, who is also a key official in Great Southwest, said that entity could not do it.
During the discussion, it was also revealed that the Hillarosa event was taking place on private property, and Griffin said that private owners didn’t have to pay for security outside the event.
“If we have these people here, then we have an obligation to keep them safe while they are here,” Griffin said. Attendance estimates for the five-day, scheduled to run from March 27 (Wednesday) to March 31 (Sunday), have been publicly cited any where between 8,000 and 15,000 persons over the period.
The Tourism Commission approved $2,500 to assist with the outside security expenses.
In other Commission actions on Thursday:
• Henley proposed that the Commission purchase a set of 300 custom-made “Hope, Arkansas” car “bumper plates” for $697. Henley further proposed these items be given away and mounted on local cars for free as part of a local citizen advertising campaign, offering that persons driving around could advertise Hope on their cars. He suggested that a prominent local event, such as Train Day, could be a great venue do the give-away and mounting. In contrast to state-issued license plates, which are typically mounted at the rear of a car or truck, “bumper plates” are typically an optional car accessory for the front of the automobile. The Commission approved the proposed plates.
• Henley also proposed the Commission self-publish a “Restaurant and Lodging Guide,” in which he said all the local Tourism “Tax Collectors,” the aforementioned local restaurant and hotels, would have free ads inside. Henley proposed the size and/or placement of the said ads could be proportional to the amount of tax each entity pays. Henley cited a printing cost of $1,000, but it was unclear during the discussion whether final proposed print product would more resemble a “guide” or a “brochure.” Further details were pending, but the Commission appeared to agree on the general concept and move ahead with the project.
• Henley also delivered an update on TEMPO, which is the Texas Eagle Marketing and Promotional Organization named after the AMTRAK route that runs through Hope. Henley said that Joseph Boardman, the former AMTRAK President who was a key supporter in establishing the Hope route, had died, and the new AMTRAK President, a former airline executive named Richard Anderson, is not supportive. Henley even offered his opinion that Anderson may potentially discontinue the Texas Eagle.
• Henley also updated the Commission on the proposed refurbishment for the Bill Clinton sign adjacent to the downtown Hope Depot. A new sign costing approximately $4,000 will be installed and will have a photo of the former President instead of the traditional art.
• Henley also announced the upcoming Debra McMaster high school softball tournament happening in Hope. He said 42 teams were playing this year, and he suggested the Commission be a sponsor of the tournament, so the Commission approved a $500 sponsorship.
• The Commission also heard a separate update from Wilson regarding the downtown Hope Pavilion. Recent rains have left the concrete still to be poured. Commission member and Hope City Board member Trevor Coffee noted that there has already been citizen requests for renting the new facility; Henley said that neither costs nor guidelines had yet been established for the Pavilion or the Log Hut over in Hope’s Fair Park. Such guidelines could be presented at a future meeting, he said.
By Rick Kennedy, managing editor