Kathy Novotny and her husband Mark Novonty welcome guests into their home, Temple Heights, during Pilgrimage Friday. This year’s event, the 78th annual, saw thousands of visitors enjoy tours at more than a dozen antebellum homes in the Columbus area. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
April 16, 2018 10:55:50 AM
Of the eight years Rachel George opened her home, Baskerville Manor on Third Street North, to guests for Columbus Pilgrimage home tours, she thinks this year is the best she's seen.
"In past years, the home has been empty for the first hour-and-a-half," George said. "And this year we've had visitors steadily from 2-5 (p.m.). ... It's been really busy, I would say, but it's been a pleasant busy."
Even before she was showing her own house, George was involved in Pilgrimage -- which completed its 78th year over the weekend. She volunteered as a hostess in nearly every antebellum home in Columbus for nearly 60 years, since she was a little girl -- and "barring unforeseen circumstances," she has no reason to stop next year, she said.
"I feel like it's a privilege ... and I do love the tradition," she said.
Likewise, Kathy Novotny said she "absolutely" plans next year to open her home, Temple Heights, a circa 1837 house on Ninth Street North.
"It has been on the tour for nearly 80 years and we don't intend on breaking that chain," Novotny said. "And we are very concerned about not being supported by the restaurant tax."
It's a legitimate concern -- the 2-percent sales tax on prepared food and beverages collected from county restaurants has sustained the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau, which promotes tourism and events like Pilgrimage, since the 1980s. This year, the tax is set to expire, and a bill to renew it died in committee during the state legislative session that ended earlier this month. The bill died due to a dispute over whether it should apply to all restaurants or just those whose prepared food and beverage sales are at least $325,000 annually.
With the tax dead, the bulk of the CVB's funding is gone.
But the loss of tax revenue shouldn't mean this year marks the last for Pilgrimage, CVB Executive Director Nancy Carpenter said.
"We will work harder to get grants, to receive grant money," Carpenter said.
Carpenter: Pilgrimage is self-sustaining
Already, Carpenter said, the CVB receives advertising funding from grants. Mississippi Development Authority provided $40,000 toward that end, but she said that was contingent on CVB first spending $80,000.
For the home tours, at least, Carpenter said visitors buy tickets, making it somewhat self-sustaining. Homeowners like George, Novotny and hosts at 12 other old homes on the Pilgrimage's tour receive a small stipend, but they're primarily volunteers doing what Carpenter stresses is a "service to the community."
"It really is a gift to the community because the money that is derived through the economic impact is for the city and the county," Carpenter said. "It's wonderful that you've got people who are coming and staying two or three days. You average $150 per day, per person and (with) buying tickets (for home tours) it's probably closer to $200.
"If you take $200 and you multiply that by thousands, you see that quickly you reach over $1 million," she added.
This year, Carpenter said, visitors from 33 states and nine countries came to tour homes and attend other events during the spring Pilgrimage. Some of them have only heard of Columbus because of advertisements they saw in magazines like Garden and Gun, Southern Living and even airline magazines, she said.
It helps, too, that in the last 20 years, Pilgrimage has grown to include more than home tours, Carpenter said. This year, at least 500 people attended the event's Kickoff Party on April 5. More than 250 participated in the half-marathon and 5K on April 7, while between 500-600 attended Catfish in the Alley later that day.
Also this year, more than 1,500 people bought tickets to Tales from the Crypt, the annual performance by students from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science to share stories of people from the city's past.
Hicks: Pilgrimage will be history
CVB's board chairman, Dewitt Hicks, opened his home -- Rosewood -- for the 40th straight year this Pilgrimage.
This year, plenty of people visited his home, he said, including many from out of state. In fact, the specter of losing the 2-percent restaurant tax, which expires June 30, didn't seem to stunt this year's event, at all.
Hicks, however, fears Pilgrimage won't get through next year so unscathed. At best, reduced marketing funds will hurt the event.
At worst, he said, the show will not go on.
"If funding for the CVB is not continued, Pilgrimage will be history, like so many other things," Hicks said.
"There certainly has been a lot of grave concern through our community," he added. "It's not just about Pilgrimage, but the economic development of our community. It's going to be very damaging if the funding is cut off."
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