Council reverses vote to fund chamber

BLYTHEWOOD – Under pressure from former mayor Mike Ross, the Blythewood Town Council voted in a contentious 3-2 decision to approve funding to help pay for the Greater Blythewood Chamber of Commerce’s rent and utilities for the current fiscal year. 

Voting Monday night to award the Chamber $4,000 from the Town’s accommodation tax (A-Tax) fund were Mayor Bryan Franklin, Councilmen Eddie Baughman and Larry Griffin. Councilmen Donald Brock and Sloan Jarvis Griffin, III voted against.

It was an about face from the July meeting when council voted 3-2 against the funding.

At that meeting the Chamber asked for $5,500 to help cover its rent and utilities so it could continue to rent the building it had shared with CPA Susan Smith for the previous year. When the lease was up and Smith moved out earlier this summer, the chamber wanted to retain the entire building so it would have an office large enough to also house, free of charge, Bravo Blythewood, the Artist Guild and the Visitor’s Center which is currently housed at Town Hall.

Following the July meeting, Ross wrote a scathing email to council members Donald Brock, Sloan Griffin and Larry Griffin, telling them they were “slapping the arts and cultural community in the face” by not funding the chamber’s rental/utility costs. Ross then scoffed at council’s funding of the town’s Doko Film Fest.

Ross wrote that he would, “do everything…to make the decisions of Mr. Brock, Mr. Sloan Griffin and Mr. Larry Griffin known to every member of these groups and their supporters.”

Two weeks later, without that funding, the chamber signed the rental lease for the office. Ross then sent a second email to Mayor Pro Tem Eddie Baughman, who had voted in favor of the funding in July, asking him to secure a place on the August agenda for the request. In that email, which was copied to multiple people and obtained by The Voice, Ross again pleaded for funds but for a lesser amount of $4,000.

“This allows us to secure residency in the old post office building on McNulty Road,” Ross wrote on Aug. 14. However, the chamber had secured the lease weeks prior.

There was no mention in Ross’ second email as to whether the chamber would still offer free housing for Bravo Blythewood, the artists guild or the visitors center in the chamber offices.

When Franklin called for approval of Monday night’s agenda, Brock made the motion to remove the funding request from the agenda. The motion failed 2-3, with Brock and Sloan Griffin voting for and Franklin, Baughman and Larry Griffin voting against.

Franklin explained why he had granted Ross’s request to place the item on Monday night’s agenda.

“It was my understanding, and the reason I added it to this agenda as requested, was that there were going to be material changes [in the request] that could change the opinions of the voting body,” Franklin said.

Larry Griffin also inferred that it would take material changes to the request for him to change his vote to approve the funding

“I’m curious to see what that information is to see if it will be a game changer,” Larry Griffin said. “I want to put that on record and up front before we get started.”

Chamber Board Chairman Allan George, who presented the chamber’s request, answered Larry Griffin, saying there were no material changes to the funding request except that it was for a lower amount. Both Franklin and Larry Griffin voted to approve the funding.

Addressing George, Sloan Griffin questioned the chamber’s financial judgement in securing a year’s lease for an office they couldn’t afford.

“We made a unanimous decision to enter that lease, and we will honor that lease and all our expenses no matter what it takes,” George said. “We’re just asking for some help in doing that. We’re not going to give up on our purpose just because we’re not getting $4,000 dollars from the town, if that’s your question. Are you questioning the decision we made to enter the lease?” George asked.

“There you go.” Sloan Griffin answered. “You entered into a lease that you could not afford.”

“That’s not to say we could not [afford it.],” George said.

“Then why are you here?” Brock asked.

“We’re asking for help, that’s all.” George said.

He went on to say that, “Our entire financial picture Is before everyone in this room.”

“Where are all these financials you say we have before us,” Brock asked. “We’ve seen no financial reports [from the chamber]. The chamber was $20,000 in the red this time last year. How is now any different than last year? You’re asking for a bailout.”

After giving a lengthy review of the chamber’s failure to maintain financial records of more than $143,000 the town gave the chamber over a three to four-year period that ended in early 2019, George said quietly, “You’ve made your point,” and sat down.

The chamber has been criticized by the last council for supporting its larger businesses members and members located in Columbia and other counties over the mom and pop, family owned businesses in Blythewood. George told council Monday night about ways the chamber plans to tweak that perception.

He noted one member benefit the chamber offers is that non-profit vendors are allowed to participate in chamber events without paying the vendor fee that businesses pay.

“We’re kicking off a marketing campaign that’s a cooperative effort where we can have a half page in the paper for 48 weeks, with 20 people represented in that ad, but paying a small portion of the cost of the ad. That’s a tremendous benefit,” George said.

“That’s going to be a little bit of administrative expense to us, but that’s something we’re willing to do to help our very small businesses. That’s a great benefit to small businesses that can’t afford to advertise every week,” George said.

“Joe Bernard, the CEO of Providence Health, a great guy, has agreed to chair a new committee for us called the industry partners committee,” George said. “It invites members of industry to get together to discuss what’s going on in their world.”

Both Baughman and Franklin praised the chamber.

“I stand with the chamber,” Franklin said after reading a list of events and organizations the town funds.

“We fund these events because these are what our values are,” he said.

Franklin said any business can receive A- and H-Tax funding from the town.

“If your business wants to come and run an Octoberfest, and ask for A- and H-Tax money, then come and fill out an application and do it,” Franklin said. “This chamber runs more events for this town than any other non-profit.”

While the town funds the events, Franklin said the town’s funding is not necessary for the events to happen.

“If we didn’t spend a dime, every one of these events would happen,” he said.

Following the meeting, Town Administrator Brian Cook clarified that only non-profits can receive A- and H-Tax funds for events, not for-profit businesses.