Kathy Novotny informs guests about the history of her home, Temple Heights, during the 2018 Columbus Pilgrimage in this Dispatch file photo. Novotny and other antebellum homeowners are concerned that they don't have enough communication with the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau in the months leading up to Pilgrimage. Photo by: Dispatch file photo
May 24, 2019 10:07:57 AM
Gaines Gaskin and Kathy Novotny both love participating in Pilgrimage.
Both women opened their historic Columbus homes between March 28 and April 6 for the 79th year of the annual tradition.
Gaskin has hosted antebellum home tours at Errolton on Third Avenue South, both with her family as a little girl and a homeowner with her husband, Keith. On the other side of town, Novotny has opened Temple Heights on Ninth Street North to visitors for the past four years.
They enjoy showing guests around their homes, which were two of 12 antebellum houses on this year's tour. With the help of volunteers, they dress in period attire, tell stories of the homes' history and past residents, and do their best to provide an immersive experience.
But Novotny said the months leading up to Pilgrimage lack the same appeal, due to what she and Gaskin say is poor communication between homeowners and the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau, a shortage of volunteers and a lack of promotional material.
"This year, we were told a month in advance when Pilgrimage would start," Novotny said. "We aren't really told anything until we're asked (to participate in home tours) and given the contract to sign."
Additionally, Novotny told The Dispatch she feels that a decline in volunteer participation is taking away from Pilgrimage's success. Both she and Gaskin sometimes had to close rooms of their homes during tours because there weren't enough docents (volunteers in period attire who help with tours).
"You feel like (visitors are) not getting their money's worth when that happens," Gaskin said. "And it's a shame because we love showing our homes. We want to tell that history."
CVB Executive Director Nancy Carpenter told The Dispatch she allocated 24 docents to Novotny's home, the most docents sent to any one home during Pilgrimage. Frances Glenn, who coordinates Pilgrimage volunteers, said she hosted two events at the Columbus Air Force Base to recruit volunteers for antebellum home tours. About two-thirds of volunteers come from the base, she said, and she tries to recruit from as many other sources as possible.
"Quite honestly, I'm on the phone, calling people, talking to people on the PTA, kids I know, people at (East Mississippi Community College) ... I feel like we go above and beyond to get volunteers," Glenn said.
Novotny believes the issues would be solved if CVB solicited input from homeowners and began distributing promotional brochures for Pilgrimage earlier. This year, Novotny said she didn't see any promotional materials until about a month before Pilgrimage began.
"We do Pilgrimage because it brings visitors to Columbus and helps the economy," Novotny said. "But I think because (homeowners) are such a part of it, there should be more input between us and the CVB.
"It's kind of been in a decline for a few years," she later added. "I just feel the homeowners aren't really involved in anything. If we ... did have a little more communication and input, and our input was taken seriously, I think we would have more success."
The promotional brochures were printed late this year due to financial concerns, Glenn said.
"It's a good $10,000 to print brochures, so we ... didn't want to print until funding was positive," she said. "The brochures were late going out and we were disappointed in that. ... I hate that homeowners felt like we didn't give it our all because we really did."
Carpenter added that, while the brochures were late, the CVB sent out 10,000 rack cards to promote the 2019 Pilgrimage beginning in March 2018.
She also told The Dispatch that homeowners -- or anyone involved in Pilgrimage -- are always welcome to provide her with input.
"This is the first I've heard of this and it makes me so sad," she said. "If anyone has any concerns, they should feel free to come sit down with me."
Despite funding uncertainty, another 'successful' year
There were concerns over Pilgrimage funding after a 2-percent sales tax at restaurants, which accounted for most of the CVB's funding, expired last year and had to be reinstated by the Legislature in March.
Carpenter said CVB made ends meet thanks to two grants -- one for $20,000 from nonprofit Mississippi Hills Area Heritage Alliance and one for $16,000 from the Mississippi Development Authority -- and "very careful advertising."
Despite the uncertainty, this year's Pilgrimage was as successful -- though not more so -- as previous years, bringing in thousands of visitors and an estimated economic impact of more $600,000, she said.
Carpenter estimates between 8,000 and 10,000 people attended this year's Pilgrimage. More than 1,400 attended 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. The newest attraction -- the Buttahatchie Barn Trail, which is on its second year -- brought nearly 500 visitors.
The entire Pilgrimage's estimated economic impact of $600,000 included overnight stays, meals and shopping. Pilgrimage ticket sales, grants and donations alone took in about $90,000, a success Carpenter credits to the variety of events available.
"We've really diversified," Carpenter said. "During my time, we've come up with different events. The more options you have, the more diverse your guests are."
Carpenter said that in preparation for future Pilgrimages, she will continue to apply for grant funding and said the financial constraints helped the CVB evaluate where and how to spend Pilgrimage funds in the future.
"We're making some real positive changes," she said. "There are really good things that came from looking hard at our programs and ... applying for more grants and funding. I think it was still a big success."
The CVB has already begun planning a series of special events to commemorate next year's 80th Pilgrimage, including a birthday party on March 26 in honor of Tennessee Williams, she said.
Though Pilgrimage attendance remained level from last year, Carpenter believes that will change as the CVB focuses its efforts on attracting groups of tourists to Columbus for Pilgrimage.
"We're really concentrating on bringing in overnight visitors because they have the greatest economic impact," she said.
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