Blythewood Town Council increases Chamber funding

BLYTHEWOOD – After months of threatening to withhold funds from the chamber of commerce and visitor center until the chamber’s executive director Mike Switzer produced the two organizations’ complete financials by June 12, council did just the opposite on Monday night.

After being presented financials that one former council member described as little more than a difficult-to-follow profit and loss statement that took more than a month to produce, Council increased funding for the chamber Monday evening from $15,000 to $17,500 for the 2018-19 fiscal year and continued full funding for the visitor center at $18,500 annually, with $9,250 awarded up front along with the promise that it will pull the plug on the visitor center at the end of six months, on Dec. 31, 2018.

Council also raised the allocation in the budget for accommodation tax funding for the Big Grab (which has been given to the chamber for the last two years) from $8,500 to $10,000 for fiscal year 2018-19.

Council asked in return only that the chamber give it a premier sponsorship valued at $2,500. The sponsorship is given at no cost to the chamber, and for council to have a voting member on the chamber board. That member will be Ed Parler, the town’s economic development director and council’s current liaison to the chamber.

Mayor pro tem Eddie Baughman, who led the discussion and the fight to keep the visitor center funded until the end of the year, expressed concern several times about the council being fair to the chamber.  Council offered no criticism of the chamber’s financials which, chamber member Phil Frye characterized Monday night as “an abomination.”

“The [chamber’s] profit and loss statements were difficult to understand,” Ed Parler, council’s liaison to the chamber said Monday evening. Council had no questions about the chamber/visitor center’s past financial inconsistencies and while some council members suggested the chamber got off track because there of a lack of expectations from both sides, council offered no specific stipulations or expectations regarding the chamber and visitor center financials going forward. No reference was made to the chamber’s lack of financial disclosure, reporting and questionable distribution of funds as reported in The Voice.

The vote to fund was unanimous with Mayor J. Michael Ross not voting, but not recusing himself either. Ross remained at the table, participating in the discussion of the funding and, when both Councilmen Malcolm Gordge and Larry Griffin suggested pulling the plug immediately on the visitor center, Ross intervened to encourage chamber members in the audience to come forward to present the chamber’s side.

Ross announced on Monday night that his decision to no longer vote on chamber or visitor center funding is due to his several-year business relationship with the chamber, which rents office space in McNulty Plaza that is owned by Ross and a business partner. Ross did recuse himself from a vote last year on $7,000 that council awarded to the chamber to renovate the McNulty office space. Ross has not recused himself on other votes providing funding that was used to pay rent.

During a budget workshop on April 24, Switzer requested a $4,000 increase in funding – $2,500 for the chamber, which was approved by Council Monday night, and $2,000 for the visitor center, which was not approved.

“The $4,500 increase that you have in the budget for us will cover one-fourth of our rent increase of $6,000,” Switzer told council. That increase goes into effect on July 1, Ross told The Voice.

“My partner and I basically gave the building to the chamber the first year they were there,” Ross said. “But you can only do that for so long if you’re in business. So we charge them $1,500 a month. That’s 45 percent less than what other people pay in our building. We’re just trying to help the chamber.”

According to Chamber documents acquired by The Voice, annual rent for the chamber/visitor center space increased over $23,000 annually over three years. It was $600 in 2015-16, increased to $12,000 for 2016-17 and to $18,000 for 2017-18. The $6,000 increase in July will bring the chamber’s annual rental fee to $24,000 or $2,000 per month. A third of that amount is charged to the visitor center which is housed in the Chamber office space.

The usefulness of the visitor center to the town was also questioned in relation to the $18,500 annual funding. During a meeting at the chamber offices recently, Baughman said he viewed only 67 names on the visitor’s register since the first of the year and that half of them were from Blythewood, not visitors to the town.

“That’s expensive for 30 people,” audience member Tom Greer of Cobblestone commented during the meeting.

Rich McKendrick, a town planning commissioner and resident of Ashley Oaks, expressed criticism of how the chamber is run and questioned why the town funds a visitor center that opened a gift shop that poses competition to small businesses in town.

“We’re members of the chamber, but a couple of curve balls have been thrown at us by the chamber which relate to the visitor center which is in direct competition with what my wife sells in her shop. She pushes hard to offer local venders, local crafts, honey, eggs, needlepoint – those are drivers in our business. Then the chamber, which is funded by the town, pops up with the visitor’s center. We are trying to see how that visitor center works on behalf of the local businesses since it’s not open on weekends,” McKendrick said. “Then the gift shop pops up. If you’re a chamber, you’re a chamber. Then you open a gift shop. What if you open a coffee shop next? I cannot connect these dots.

“Then they come to council and ask for money which helps the gift shop,” McKendrick said. “The chamber doesn’t do anything for us for free. We pay a membership, then when the Big Grab came along, they asked us to pay a sponsorship, then they spell our name wrong and then they make excuses. And it was the same thing with the Eclipse event. We have to pay again for what the town is already paying them for. And then they open a gift shop. It’s mind-numbing when you’re on the outside looking in. I’m telling you from a business owner’s standpoint, this plan makes no sense. We are a business here. But the chamber places itself in control of events that we have to pay extra for,” McKendrick said.

McKendrick suggested the town pull the plug on the visitor center and use the money to otherwise help the merchants.

“The chamber was already paying the rent [for its office space] before there was a visitor’s center,” McKendrick said.

“According to a presentation [to council] by Mr. Switzer, the chamber’s expenses have not changed because of the visitor’s center. It [the funding for the visitor center] is just an additional revenue stream to what you are already giving the chamber,” McKendrick told council. “You’re supplementing a chamber that has not had any increase in expenses due to the visitor center. “

“That makes sense,” Baughman said, “but we’re trying to do the fair thing for the chamber, to keep it [the visitor center] going for six months, then pull the plug. I’m trying to be fair.”

In the end, there was no suggestion from council that the town should or would look into the chamber and visitor center financials, or hold them accountable for a number of financial discrepancies in the past that make it difficult to track funding.

An examination of the chamber’s financial documents obtained by The Voice show amounts differed from report to report and there was little breakdown of revenue and expenses to know if the numbers shown on the profit and loss statement were accurate. In one instance, Switzer submitted a final report to the A-tax committee for The Big Grab listing chamber expenses as $12,114.23 but the chamber’s profit and loss statement for July 1, 2017 – June 22, 2017 lists total expenses for The Big Grab as $7,402.12. There is no explanation for the $4,712.11 discrepancy. This and other questions were emailed to Ross with only one response at this time. In that response, Ross only said that he did not approve of the chamber staff receiving payment for working on events funded by the town.

Mayor pro tem Eddie Baughman led the fight to fund the chamber and visitor center until Dec. 31, 2018, in order to “be fair” to the chamber. But while some effort was made to set down expectations for what council wanted to see accomplished by the chamber and, particularly, the visitor center in exchange for the funding, no consensus was ever reached and no expectations were identified.