The pols are back in town

by

Published: January 3,2005

Jackson — During the winter months, business owners typically budget for slower business and less revenue. But Mississippi lawmaker’s per-diem allowance of approximately $100 per day boosts business for hoteliers and restaurateurs in the metro area.

“Typically in this industry, January through March is slow, but because the Legislature is in session during those months, we pick up a lot of business,” said Mendee Alford, innkeeper of Old Capitol Inn in downtown Jackson. “We’ve been fortunate to host several legislative receptions, boosting that part of our business 10% to 15%, and we house a few lobbyists.”

Considering the impact

The Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) estimates the economic impact of the legislative session is at least $850,000.

“The bureau looks at (it) as a convention, which generates additional economic activity in the city through hotel room nights, restaurant meals and shopping consumed by the legislators, as well as their family and guests,” said Jackson CVB president Wanda Collier-Wilson. “Additionally, catering business is affected by the increased number of receptions held to welcome the Legislature during the session.”

Ralph Foster, co-owner of the Habana Smoke Shoppe, said business increases 5% to 7% during the session for middle-of-the-road cigars, even though “we rarely see any of the legislators when they’re in session.”
Dennery’s Restaurant is the frequent site of welcoming receptions for legislators and associations.

“A number of receptions are focused around mid-winter conferences for various organizations,” said restaurant owner John Dennery. “This gives them an opportunity to get their membership together to focus on legislative issues with legislators from their hometowns.”

Welcome home

Cyrus Webb, general manager of the Best Western Executive Inn, has reaped the benefits of housing state lawmakers, especially since the Sun-n-Sand Hotel, a landmark resting place for many legislators, closed in 2001, and other hotels have changed ownership. Approximately 18 elected officials pay $650 per month to stay at the 60-room hotel from January to April, even though it means that Webb doesn’t have as many rooms available for guests during the popular Dixie National Rodeo and Livestock Show at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds.

“We cut legislators a little better price because they’re not here on the weekends and only need linen service maybe once a week,” said Webb. “They like that all rooms have high-speed Internet access and the hotel has a business center. They use the free breakfast as a time to socialize.”

Getting things done

Jay Schimmel, owner of the popular meeting place Schimmel’s, said anytime there’s an influx of population, even for a short time, in a small city like Jackson, there’s a noticeable increase in restaurant traffic.

“Everyone has a favorite spot and even a favorite table or booth or food,” he said. “When they feel comfortable, they can talk better and get some things done. I feel fortunate to be on that list. A tremendous amount of work has gotten accomplished over lunch or dinner here.”

For regular winter events, businesses, investment clubs and healthcare professionals also book Schimmel’s private rooms, which accommodates groups from 12 to 60.

“We have a huge medical population in Jackson, so we have a lot of doctor’s meetings and pharmaceutical dinners,” he said. “I’m sure those 90 days the Legislature is in session, we have more non-medical and non-local traffic, but to quantify it is tough to do.”

Enjoying the extras

Carol Simmons, innkeeper of Fairview Inn in Belhaven, said she averages an extra reception or dinner per week when legislators are in town.

“Some stay with me. One stayed the entire term last year, and I’m talking to several about ‘05,” she said in early December. “I’m expecting this year to be much better because they’ve gotten to know about us. The ones that come like the privacy and convenience of having meeting space in their backyard. It’s a good arrangement.”

John Hardy, manager of the University Club, who worked at the Camelot Club in Baton Rouge for eight years before moving to Jackson, said the spike in business isn’t as significant as it was when Louisiana lawmakers were in town.

“We went up about 30% on private party and dinner business,” he said. “Here in Jackson, it really doesn’t impact my business at the club at all. We’ve hosted the restaurant association’s reception for the Legislature for three or four years, but last year, I think they moved it to Dennery’s. We get quite a few political fundraisers, a luncheon every now and then, and entertain a few legislators.”

Aven Whittington, catering manager for Broad Street Bakery and Bravo!, said the restaurants cater several cocktail parties at various venues and luncheons at the Capitol every week. “It boosts the bottom line and we always appreciate the extra business,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

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