CVB members take exception to comments

1/20/2014

Samy, Washington defend board's procedures, makeup.

Samy, Washington defend board's procedures, makeup.

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

In response to criticism from the Finney County Commission, two Finney County Convention and Visitors Bureau board members hope to clear the air about the organization's goals and operation.

Two weeks ago, County Commissioner Dave Jones raised concerns about the makeup of the CVB board during a discussion of board terms.

Jones is concerned about a perception of conflict of interest if board members are in the room or voting on grant requests involving their business or organization. He also feels certain longtime members representing organizations like the Recreation Commission, Lee Richardson Zoo and the county fairgrounds should be non-voting members.

"I'm simply saying that it's a strange looking environment when people sitting on a board are voting for their own enterprise," Jones said during an interview last week. "And I don't know how you get around that since that board must have a majority hoteliers. I felt much stronger about having other people on the board who are not hoteliers that are on the receiving end of tax monies both for their salaries and for their project."

The CVB receives about $800,000 per year from the bed tax, a 6 percent surcharge on every overnight hotel stay in Garden City. A portion of the revenue, roughly $200,000 in the past year, is used for a grant program that provides up to $15,000 for new events, and up to $10,000 to recurring events.

To be eligible, an applicant must show how its event has a direct economic impact on the community and how the event will increase visitors. There are no guarantees an applicant will receive the exact or entire dollar amount requested.

Jones said he isn't criticizing any board member personally. Each current member brings good knowledge and experience to the table, he said, but he would prefer board members not be put in the position of voting on requests from their own organizations.

"That's all I'm saying. It's a little bit akin to asking for a pay raise and then voting on your own pay raise," Jones said.

However, Amro Samy, CVB board president, and John Washington, CVB board treasurer, say CVB board members don't vote on grant requests from organizations they are affiliated with, and some members step out of the room when the board hears those requests.

"I'll speak for myself. I don't even stay in the room. It's presented by my staff," Washington said.

Not only does Washington step out of the room, he said he is not involved in preparing the grant request and doesn't see it until after the CVB board takes action. He also doesn't try to influence the board's decision, and the recreation commission isn't out to make a profit on events.

"I can guarantee you we don't make money on an event. To balance a particular event we generally take out our administrative cost and staffing expenditures. Otherwise, we could be asking double the amount," Washington said.

Grants generally help grow events by bringing in more people or, in the case of sporting events, more teams.

As an example, Washington pointed to the Jim Clanton Memorial Tournament, a 25-year-old baseball tournament that grew from eight to 12 teams to 28 teams most recently. The ability to use a CVB grant essentially allowed the tournament field to double, he said.

Attracting more sports events has long been a focus for the CVB.

"We have the facilities. We have the hotels," Samy said. "Between the high school, the college, (the rec), the YMCA, we have the facilities, so why not stand behind it instead of empty basketball courts and baseball fields? It's time to fill them up, and that's what we're doing."

Samy said the bed tax is designed to create activity in the community so that everyone gains, not just hoteliers.

"This board's goal is to create this activity. We have great staff trying to reach these goals. To be the hub, we have to have a lot of different sports other than one. This board is not gonna get away from that goal," Samy said.

Samy said for the past five years, the CVB's goal has been to make Garden City a sports hub that attracts a variety of sporting events. Those events tend to bring out-of-town teams in, and that is more likely to result in overnight stays in hotels and motels, especially on weekends.

Samy believes the increased activity generated by sports events has a trickle-through effect on many other businesses besides hoteliers, though, granted, hoteliers see direct benefit from overnight guests.

"But we're not the only ones who are going to gain. Food and restaurants, gas, the Big Pool, shopping are all going to gain. So we cannot say that there is an agenda from the hoteliers, it's the whole community that is going to gain," he said.

Jones said even if a member doesn't vote on his or her own project, it still could be somewhat intimidating for other board members to vote against a fellow board member's project.

"It gives an appearance. That's all I'm saying. There's probably nothing in the world wrong with it, it just gives an appearance," Jones said.

Samy disagrees that anyone is being intimidated. The county commission has a representative on the board, Roman Halbur, who attends every meeting, Samy said, and would surely bring such an issue up to other county commissioners if it were true.

"I don't think there's ever been anybody intimidated. We work really close with the county commission. We feel the county commissioners have a lot of say so, and we bounce off ideas of what we're doing," he said.

Samy also disputed the idea that he has some sort of stranglehold on event sponsorships. Washington added that events often have more than one sponsor.

"It's open for grabs for anybody else in the community who wants to pick it up. They're more than welcome to," Samy said.

Still, Jones feels the CVB board would benefit from more representation by non-hotelier business owners.

"As I have said, business people to me means somebody that sends in sales tax that's collected. It doesn't include somebody that's a fairgrounds director, or who doesn't mail in sales tax. It's the business person that would also benefit from bringing folks to town to spend the night in a hotel," Jones said. "They could run a dress shop on Main Street and have some real good input. I'd just like to see a little of that represented."

Samy and Washington said they are more than willing to talk to anyone with concerns about the grant process, the CVB's goals or how the board is organized. All CVB board meetings are open to the public.

"We don't operate with an open checkbook. There's always a demand for funding, but we as a board, we have to be cautious about what we're funding," Samy said.

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