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Anticipating tourism incentives

Supporters of a newly-passed tourism incentives bill say the legislation will bring big bucks and more visitors to the state. A $6.35-billion industry that accounts for 90,000 jobs, tourism is one of the state’s fastest growing industries and one that is clean and positive. Those numbers are expected to grow with new incentives to bring large, new projects here.

The legislation began as a Momentum Mississippi initiative with research to discover what other states are doing in this field and what would work best for Mississippi. It was introduced in both houses of the legislature by Rep. Diane Peranich of Pass Christian and Sen. Tommy Robertson of Pascagoula.

“Momentum Mississippi spearheaded this initiative to get the ball rolling, and the Mississippi Economic Council (MEC) played a supporting role,” said Scott Waller of the MEC. “We worked with Rep. Peranich and Sen. Robertson and the Mississippi Tourism Association (MTA) to get it passed because this legislation is another economic development tool for the state.”

Waller says the incentives package will diversify the tourism industry and affect the whole state. Beginning at a $10-million threshold, the incentives package will provide a mechanism for different kinds of tourism to come in to help areas that don’t have a lot of industry at this time.

Craig Ray, director of the Mississippi Development Authority’s Division of Tourism, supported the House version of the bill because he feels it provides enticements to enhance the state’s tourism product. He knows of a project in North Mississippi that may bring in a marina because of this package. Other projects may include golf courses and other features.

“It’s not so much that it will diversify tourism, but it is truly an engine for the possibility to bring in more tourists who will spend more dollars in the state. The whole state benefits,” he said, “and some projects may be different from what we have.”

Casinos do not qualify for the incentives. Beau Whittington of Convention Display Service in Jackson says the Senate took out the gaming language to keep the legislation geared to more family-oriented projects.

“The casinos are not happy with it, but it is what it is and this is an election year,” he said. “These incentives will make big tourism projects come to Mississippi. They will make the state attractive, projects like River Bend in Tunica.”

Whittington serves as legislative committee chairman for MTA and says the organization strongly supported the bill.
Those tourism projects that qualify will make an application through MDA and follow guidelines to provide an independent market study showing the project will attract out-of-state visitors. As a result, developers of these projects could recoup up to 30% of their investment through sales tax receipts over a 10-year period.

“There will be some immediate impact that the state will see in addition to bringing in tourists to spend money. These projects also bring in ancillary businesses,” Waller said. “We believe this bill is important in an effort to increase tourism in the state, in many ways an untapped market. It gives economic incentives and it can have a positive impact on the state. It can also help change the perception of the state.”

He said the bill excludes hotels unless they are $40-million projects and anything owned by casinos. The incentives divide the state into tiers according to growth. Tier one includes counties with growing population and low unemployment rates. Tier two is those with slower growth, and tier three is counties with little growth and economic activity.

“There has been a lot of cooperation to get this legislation passed,” Waller said. “That’s one great thing about it.”
In addition to supporting this bill, Ray said the Division of Tourism also supported the film incentives bill and an increase in tourism’s budget for advertising. “Those have been our three issues this year,” he said. “We feel that our numbers have been good and can justify an increase in the budget.”

Whittington said MTA strongly supported the Tourism Division’s budget increase, too. “Where else can you get $10 back for every $1 spent on advertising?” he asks.

MTA asked for a $l-million increase for tourism’s advertising budget, which would bring the yearly budget to $7 million. “With the increase, we could advertise more and use it effectively,” Ray said. “A 10 to one ratio is not a bad return at all. The budget has been reduced from what it was in the past, but we have produced more results with what we’ve had.”

Ray says the tourism industry had a tough year following Hurricane Katrina, but is getting back to its strong pre-storm level.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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