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New points system and budget cutbacks affect state

Tourism directors feeling a financial pinch

Some tourism directors were shocked this fall when the state tourism division informed them they would receive only a percentage, if any money at all, from its matching grant program.

“It definitely cramped our budget,” said Arma M. de la Cruz, vice president of tourism for the Greater Starkville Development Partnership.

The matching grant accounted for nearly half of the Partnership’s $70,000 annual tourism marketing budget. After receiving the matching grant nearly every year since the program’s inception in 1993, the Partnership did not receive any money this time.

“We’re scrambling,” she said. “Our committee is getting together (soon) to redo the budget and get it amended by the board of aldermen, and we’re taking other steps to offset the loss.”

Like other state agencies, the Mississippi Development Authority suffered stringent budget cuts. The tourism division’s matching grant program was reduced from $1.2 million to $775,000, and the matching grant award cap was reduced from $100,000 to $65,000.

Also, based on PEER Committee recommendations, the matching grant program received an overhaul in its evaluation system of applications. The new rating system involves a one-page checklist with eight categories, with more weight given to tourism entities that collaborate with other organizations.

“The system worked,” said Craig Ray, director of the state tourism division. “The money just wasn’t there as it was in the past. I think several years ago, there was $1.5 million in the pool. Plus, the new rating system changed the whole environment.”

MDA mailed letters detailing the changes to tourism entities in July, with a September 1 deadline for grant applications. Of the 135 applications submitted, approximately half received a monetary award.

“The letter mentioned the cutbacks and new points system, but I wasn’t aware that MDA would actually cut out complete funding for us,” said de la Cruz. “I was somewhat prepared to readjust my marketing budget by cutting out advertising in publications like Southern Living and Mississippi Magazine, as we were revamping our campaign. However, it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t receive anything at all.”

The tourism committee didn’t make a conscious effort to shut out anybody, said Mollie Gregory, spokesperson for the tourism division.

“The numbers were tallied and money was awarded to the top 70 organizations, as long as the money was there,” she said. “Unfortunately, there were a couple of cities that were completely shut out money-wise. We’ll work with them any other way that we can.”

Convention and visitors bureaus and local tourism offices typically apply matching grant funds, which are audited annually, to advertising and media placement.

“In the past, if they applied for a grant, most people got something,” said Gregory. “Now, they have to prove how this grant would be beneficial to the community.”

To make adjustments, de la Cruz has notified the city’s arts council, which depends on the Partnership to help market the Cotton District Arts Festival, Magnolia Independent Film Festival and other festivals and events unique to the area, and will increase its advertising presence through the East Mississippi Tourism Group, a 13-county coalition.

“I’ll use regional tactics through that organization and issue more press releases and keep and maintain relationships with newspapers,” she said. “I’ll put money from advertising cutbacks into postcards that I’ll mail to qualified leads from our database to let them know about upcoming special events and to direct people to our website for more information, including meetings and conventions. We’re updating our Web site and making that more accessible to visitors. We’d already started a constant contact program with biweekly newsletters sent to the same database of qualified leads.”

Kathy Boutwell, executive director of the Mississippi Tourism Association, who plans to lobby state lawmakers for full restoration of matching grant funds, said the matching grant cutbacks “will have an impact on us, but more so an impact on the way communities around the state advertise their tourism product.”

“I think we’ve done a great job with what we’ve had, and we’ve requested from the Legislative Budget Office our full budget back next year, with additional monies for advertising,” said Ray. “MDA director Leland Speed has recognized that tourism is the number two revenue source in the state. However, this is a time when the governor is trying to tighten the belt on the state’s pants to get the budget under control.”

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


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