Article Comment 

Link preparing for war over expected tourism fund cuts

 

Birney Imes

 

Joe Higgins is not happy with the Columbus Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau, and he''s making no secret of it.  

 

Reacting to news that the CVB might reduce the percentage of its revenue it gives to the Columbus Lowndes Development Link, which Higgins heads, he summoned media representatives to his office Wednesday afternoon to share with them a letter he planned to release later that afternoon to his "public and private partners" alerting them of the cuts. The letter states the cuts could range from $30,000 to upwards of $100,000 per year, and urges Link supporters to attend the CVB''s board meeting at 4 p.m. Monday. The CVB is expected to finalize its budget at the meeting. 

 

The CVB is funded by a 2-percent restaurant tax, which generated about $1.3 million last year. In recent years the organization has given 15 percent of that revenue to the Link. As that amount has grown, the Link''s share has increased from $160,000 in 2004 to $193,000 this year. 

 

James Tsismanakis, director of the CVB, said the board was planning to give the Link somewhere between $160,000-$190,000 in its upcoming budget.  

 

"I''ve told (Higgins) three times the figure would be between 160 and 190," Tsismanakis said this morning. "I told him this was a one-year deal. We were cutting my budget to get him to 160. I told him that three times and he still says ''$100,000 in cuts.''" 

 

Tsismanakis justified the cuts Wednesday afternoon, pointing out the expense of the just-completed Tennessee Williams Welcome Center renovation (about $290,000 for the CVB''s share), the organization''s new offices (The CVB has committed $700,000 to buy and furnish half of the ground floor of the building under construction behind the welcome center), and one-third of the share of the local contribution to the restoration of old river bridge, about $133,000. Tsismanakis also said his organization wants to be in position next year to take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in the international celebration of the 100th birthday of playwright Tennessee Williams, Columbus'' most famous native son. 

 

Later Wednesday afternoon, Higgins changed tactics saying in hopes reaching a resolution, he was going to wait another 24 hours before releasing the letter. 

 

The CVB is the second-largest contributor to the Link, following Lowndes County, which gave the organization $210,000 in its most recent budget period. The city of Columbus provides $100,000. 

 

"He''s gone for the jugular," Tsismanakis said of Higgins. 

 

The sometimes volatile economic developer said he''s brought in individual CVB board members Glenn Lautzenhiser, George Swales and board president Dewitt Hicks for one-on-one sessions.  

 

"I didn''t know that he was calling my board," said Tsismanakis. 

 

"It gets to be which is more important -- car races and bass tournaments or industrial recruitment," said Higgins, who said that his stance reflects that of his executive committee. "We feel morally and ethically that 15 percent is what we''re entitled to," he said, admitting the figure is not a contractual amount. 

 

"If they don''t agree (to fund the Link 15 percent), we''re going to raise the nuclear plunger," Higgins continued. 

 

Higgins said the restaurant tax can be repealed by petition and vote or by a request from the City Council or the Board of Supervisors. 

 

When pressed further, Higgins seemed to backtrack. "We''re going to strongly say, we''re going to explore other options. ... The compromise number is 15 percent," he said. 

 

Higgins said this was going to be a tough year for the Link, which has seen its budget shrink from $1.36 million when he arrived in June 2003 to $814,000 this year. He said the organization has cut two positions, and the city has reduced its funding by $10,000. Gone is $10,000 in annual support from Domtar and Omnova, and the he expects the Link to lose about $40,000 in memberships. Funding from the Trust, a five-year annual commitment from local businesses, has dropped from $474,000 a year to $294,000. 

 

Both the Link and the CVB have six full-time employees. Higgins makes $220,000 a year in salary plus the potential of $30,000 in bonuses. Tsismanakis makes $90,000 a year. 

 

Wednesday, Higgins presented the members of the media a red folder containing a copy of the letter he planned to release and copies of the local and private bills that created and sustained the 2-percent restaurant tax. In the 2000 version of the law, a percentage of collections went to Mississippi University for Women. The 2004 extension directed all the proceeds of the tax to the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitor''s Bureau with no stipulation as to how the money should be spent.  

 

In 2008 the CVB, with the help of the Link, successfully appealed to the Legislature to extend the law from the customary four years to 10 in order to provide stability for the long-term financial commitments the CVB was about to undertake. 

 

"When you come here to Pilgrimage you might stay a night; when you come here to hang steel, you''re not a tourist, but you''re paying the restaurant tax," Higgins said. "This organization is the organization that lays the golden egg," he said of the Link. 

 

"I just think the citizens of Lowndes County are getting a huge bang for what we provide," countered Tsismanakis. "I think the community can see a huge benefit."

 

Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.

 

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Reader Comments

Article Comment insanity commented at 10/14/2010 6:22:00 PM:

I think Joe needs to come back to Earth. He's gotten way to big for his britches.

 

Article Comment abd commented at 10/15/2010 8:29:00 AM:

I think they need to consider cutting his salary by about $100,000. $220,000 is way to much for his job.

 

Article Comment adoseofreality commented at 10/15/2010 10:37:00 AM:

Let me begin by laying all of my cards on the table: I am no fan of the Columbus Lowndes Development Link.

The following are just a few of the reasons why:

1. When the deal in which Severstal agreed to locate a steel plant in Lowndes County was announced, it was with great hoopla that we were assured that this would mean good-paying jobs, an increase in tax revenue, and a surge in home purchases by the new plant's employees, all to the benefit of the city of Columbus and its citizens. Although I am sure that the jobs at Severstal are good-paying, I wonder how many of them went to Columbians. From what I can gather, most of the home purchases undertaken by these newly-flush employees, were made in the county (outside of the city limits) and, to a large extent, in Starkville. (Note: I mean no disrespect to the owners, management, and employees of Severstal and the other "trophies" that the Link likes to brag about. I am simply using these situations to illustrate a history of empty promises on the part of the Link.

2. The Link is so focused on landing the "whales", that they have, by and large, ignored the needs of a segment of the business community that employs (if memory serves me correctly) approximately 80% of Americans - small business.

3. Joe Higgins is rude, arrogant, obnoxious, and vulgar. One only has to refer to Mr. Higgins' own statements in the article that I am commenting on to see these characteristics in action. For instance, "We feel morally and ethically that 15 percent is what we're entitled to." Exactly why do you feel that you are ENTITLED to ANY funding from the CVB, just because they have been benevolent enough to lavish you with as much as $193,000 A YEAR? The CVB's function is to stimulate tourism, both from individuals and groups. That's why it's called the Columbus CONVENTION & VISITORS Bureau!

Higgins is also quoted as saying "The compromise number is 15 percent." Perhaps he might be interested to learn the word "compromise" is defined as "1. a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles, etc., by reciprocal modification of demands. and 2. something intermediate between different things. How is insisting that the figure of 15 percent is a compromise, when that is exactly the same amount that the Link has been receiving? I would like to specifically refer to the terms "mutual concessions" and "reciprocal modification of demands", in the above definition.

In light of the fact that the CVB is the second-largest funder of the Link, Higgins' outrageous comment, "If they don't agree (to fund the Link 15 percent), we're going to raise the nuclear plunger," he demonstrates that he is not only willing to bite the hand that feeds it (The Link), he is also threatening to devour the arm and a good portion of the torso, as well. Is this the kind of reckless behavior that we want coming from one of the city's economic development leaders?

It is a shame that, in making such haughty statements as "This organization is the organization that lays the golden egg," Higgins mainly ends up with egg on his face.

It is unfortunate that Higgins has chosen to denigrate the efforts of the staff and board of the CVB (who work tirelessly to help promote Columbus to visitors from all over the world) by making comments like, "It gets to be which is more important -- car races and bass tournaments or industrial recruitment." Not only is this comment disingenuous, it also is, I suspect, not entirely accurate. For example, how many jobs would be lost by hotels, restaurants, and other tourism-related businesses (as well as those that supply them) if not for the efforts of the CVB? I imagine that the economic impact of the loss of all of those jobs would be comparable to that of the loss of jobs at one of the "big fish". (Perhaps, after some research, this will be the subject of a subsequent posting.)

In closing, I would like to urge all who read this posting to contact their elected officials, and also to attend this Monday's City Council meeting, and show their support for the CVB, and its dedicated staff and board of directors. Contact information for our elected officials can be found by visiting http://www.thecityofcolumbusms.org/primary.asp?p=18&t=6&n=0





 

Article Comment walum79 commented at 10/15/2010 11:32:00 AM:

Don't blame Joe for people not living here. He has told the community over and over that we need to work on our problems in the city and we have not taken care of business. That is not Joe's fault. Personally I think he has done an outstanding job of bringing jobs to the Golden Triangle and has continued to keep us going. Joe is a no-nonsense guy and he is worth every penny we pay him. People all over the state respect him and he is a leader in economic development in the state. If he makes you mad or doesn't have a great bedside manner then tough. Get over it he is doing his job and doing it well. The matter at hand is that the CCVB has spent all their money or should I say blown all their money now they are trying to get out of a hole. Someone should be looking closer at their expenditures and making them more accountable. Lets tie their tails across the fence and see who wins. My money is on Joe Higgins. Maybe we should go to the council meeting and tell the city council they need to appoint a new board for the CCVB since they seem to have problems managing their money.

 

Article Comment bully7 commented at 10/15/2010 3:31:00 PM:

Joe and the Link staff are always working to improve the quality of life in Lowndes County. I am a beneficiary of their hard work. I have a great job with one of the new industries. Without their efforts, I would be living in another state now. The Link works on numerous projects at the same time including chamber functions, leadership training, working with existing industries on their needs, recruiting new industries, working to bring in new retail projects, setting up infrastructure so we can land a large project and qualilty of life projects. I am amazed at what they do with 6 people. The growth of the tourism tax revenue is directly related to their efforts. Just look at the construction vehicles parked at the hotels at night and those folks are eating at our establishments. The Link has already made staffing adjustments based on the economy. Joe is a well respected leader in industrial development. The bottom line is he knows how to work the system and win. The results they have acheived are remarkable and in regards to the comments on his pay......I think we are getting our money's worth!

 

Article Comment insanity commented at 10/16/2010 11:39:00 AM:

No one said he has not done his job or that he has not been successful. However, it would be to his benefit to learn a little humility and diplomacy. It will soon get to a point where no one is going to care about his success. Throwing out threats and trying to use the media to more or less extort money out of organizations will turn off his public support. There has been a lot on the news about school bullying here lately. I guess it doesn't count when it's adults and it occurrs in a public arena. I guess you have to turn 18 before bullying is ok.

 

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