GREENVILLE — A proposed 1% tourism tax to fund construction of a $4.2-million meeting facility has plenty of proponents — and opponents — in this historic river city.
While many Greenville business owners are on the same side as many city officials on the issue, others disagree that the 1% tourism tax is a good idea at this particular point in time. Still other business owners are opposed to the idea of putting a meeting facility in downtown Greenville because so many businesses on the outskirts of town would, according to them, be left out of the mix.
“Seventy percent of the motel rooms that are part of a national chain are out here on the highway,” said Doug DeLap, general manager of the Ramada Inn in Greenville. “In addition, most of the smaller and independently run ones are out here also. Probably 80% of the total number of hotel and motel rooms in Greenville are out here. So the only rooms downtown were built in the last five years by the casinos because of the Mississippi Gaming Commission’s regulations. And I don’t know what the casinos are contributing to this venture, but they’re the ones who will benefit from it.”
DeLap said it’s hard for him to be positive about a 1% hike in the tourism tax. He’s already paying a 1% tourism tax for the Washington County Convention Center, and said to double that tax is a ludicrous proposal to make.
“I have a real problem with that because I have convention centers out here on my property and no one has offered to improve them or enlarge them to help (Greenville) be more competitive with other towns,” DeLap said. “The primary benefactors will be the casinos and the 250 rooms they operate. I feel we probably have more to lose than anyone else does because the meeting facility will directly compete with everything that’s going on out here. I think everybody knows that and if they don’t, they need to know that. And I’m expressing the point of view of a lot of people.”
Including Mike Retzer, the CEO of Retzer Resources, the owner of the Delta’s McDonald’s franchises.
“Some in the restaurant business aren’t 100% sure this will be worth the money,” Retzer said. “The project has been talked about for a couple of years and many people think it’s important. You elect people and have to trust their judgement, but maybe it would be a good idea to ask the people what they think. Many people think tourists will pay this 1% tax but mostly local people who eat at the restaurants will pay it. All I’m saying is ask voters what they think. If they’re willing to pay the 1% tourism tax then let’s do it. Put it on the ballot and let’s see.”
However, Paul Artman, Greenville’s mayor, said he wouldn’t advance such a vote.
“We’ve labored to put a proposal on the table that shows how it can pay for itself,” Artman said. “It’s a meager tax on local people and on visitors in order to accomplish something greater for the city. To say you have to try another route of a referendum, that’s just trying to kill (the 1% tax proposal). We’ve kissed every ring there is to kiss and it’s time to move forward.”
The idea for a downtown meeting facility in Greenville is not a new one by any means; on the contrary, the city has been pondering one since around 1999 when they commissioned a study for it that would determine whether such a facility would be feasible. The study looked at the location of the meeting facility and an economic research component to determine what the community really needed. Done by PEF Development Services Inc. of New Orleans, the study determined that Greenville could accommodate a 40,000- square-foot meeting facility. However Greenville, according to Artman, could only afford a 25,000-square-foot facility. It’s that offer that is currently on the table.
“It would be a real boost in our downtown area to increase traffic,” said Betty Lynn Cameron, executive director of the Greenville Area Chamber of Commerce. “We turn down over 100 meetings a year for lack of space. We have a convention center but it handles 400 and up. It will be a first class facility with space for at least two meetings that can go on at the same time.”
In fact, the city has already purchased the old Stein Mart building, which will be torn down to make way for the new two-story meeting facility if all goes according to their plans.
The economic impact
Artman said the benefits from the proposed meeting facility in jobs and tax dollars according to the PEF study are great. The economic impact of new business activity associated with the meeting facility in sales tax dollars is approximately $492,624 annually, according to a University Research Center Forecast Analysis completed by the Institutions of Higher Learning. In addition, the new meeting facility would support more than 100 full-time indirect equivalent jobs in the private sector and more than 500 full-time equivalent jobs. That equates to about $9.7 million in job income.
“We’ve studied it, looked at it hard and we’re obviously going to try to sell this to the community,” Artman said.
Bill Seratt, executive director of the Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he has identified more than 300 groups that would be potential users of the new Greenville meeting facility. And, he added, with the highly competitive nature of meeting facilities in the state there currently just aren’t enough facilities that attract the types of meetings that need to be in Greenville.
“A further goal of building this downtown is that it’s strongly believed by the city council and the mayor that it would be the cornerstone for revitalization,” Seratt continued.
Seratt said he thought the tax proposal would pass the Legislature easily.
“I certainly hope it does,” Seratt said. “It would be an economic stimulator we desperately need here. And this is one tax that would put something tangible in Greenville. It’s an investment for the community.”
Nick Crawford, who owns Crawford Law Firm and the downtown Poplar Place Restaurant, said he hopes the Legislature does something with the local and private bill.
“So much industry has left this area,” Crawford said. “Let’s get bright one time and get this measure passed. Let’s get people into Greenville.”
Crawford said the idea that the people who would come into Greenville as a result of the new downtown meeting facility would only do business in the downtown area is a misconception.
“This is a win-win situation regardless of where you’re located,” Crawford said. “Anyone who has taken the first course in economics knows that. That argument is senseless.
“When the country is in a recession we’re in a depression,” Crawford continued. “The Delta stays in a recession. So what else are you going to do? A 1% tax —who cares. You’re going to miss a golden opportunity if you don’t get this tax passed this session.”
Benjy Nelken, the owner of Nelken Realty Properties, deals in downtown rental property. He believes the proposed Greenville meeting facility would be a win-win situation for all of Greenville.
“That area downtown is just right for a meeting facility,” Nelken said. “I believe that it could draw at least a weekly convention of 200 to 400 people into the area not just for downtown but for the whole area. And when these people fan out all over town it can only mean one thing and that’s money in the cash registers for all the businesses in Greenville. Any project we have east, south, north or west is going to help the entire community. Our main incentive is to bring people into Greenville, Miss. Let
17;s work together so that when they do come we can give them all the goods and services that they need and demand. Certainly no one likes to pay taxes but in this situation it’s an investment. I think this 1% tax will turn into dollars profit.”
Even with so many arguments for a new meeting facility in Greenville, DeLap is sti