Blythewood town council bickers over marketing choices

Former mayor Keith Bailey addresses Town Council at Monday night’s meeting. | Barbara Ball

BLYTHEWOOD – With an estimated $35,000 or so in annual state accommodation tax (SAT) revenue to work with, town council, on Monday night, took aim at choosing a marketing firm that will draw crowds of tourists to Blythewood.

While that didn’t happen, the meeting produced considerable bickering among board members. At one point Councilman Sloan Griffin attempted to end the antics by deferring the matter to the Feb. 22 regular meeting, which they did.

At issue is how to spend the 30 percent state accommodation tax (SAT) revenue the town government must hand over to a non-profit to spend annually on tourism for the town – or return the money. Because the SAT revenue fluctuates, council can only estimate the amount it will have to spend each year.

Until recently, council sent that 30 percent SAT funds to the Columbia Visitors’ bureau which did not produce a lot of tourists, according to council. Councilman Donald Brock suggested a different firm, MPA Strategies – a for-profit Columbia marketing agency that provides public relations, grant writing, social media, promotion and IT services to towns including Cayce, Camden, Summerville, Mauldin, Fountain Inn and others.

After MPA Strategies’ owner, Ashley Hunter, made a presentation to council last September, Councilman Eddie Baughman suggested the Town’s SAT money would be better spent with a local non-profit such as the Greater Blythewood Chamber of Commerce, so Mayor Bryan Franklin suggested issuing Requests for Proposals (RFP’s) for marketing services.

The Greater Blythewood Chamber of Commerce was the only non-profit to respond (a proposal of $24,000 or so). Two others were submitted by for-profit agencies – MPA Strategies (a $40,000 or so proposal) and NP Strategies, a wholly owned subsidiary of Nexen Pruitt law firm in Columbia (a $100,000 or so proposal). All three were invited to present Monday night. Ashley Hunter (MPA) was on Zoom, NP Strategies was a no-show and Phil Frye, Director of the Greater Blythewood Chamber of Commerce, attended in person.

“My biggest concern is that of these, only the Chamber is eligible for the SAT money,” Councilman Eddie Baughman said.  “The two non-profits would have to be paid out of the general fund. You nickel and dime money for the hospitality and accommodation tax (events), but we’re voting here on something that could cost us $40,000 out of our general fund budget [if the Town used a for-profit agency.] That’s not what we represented to the people.”

Brock said the money for a for-profit would not have to come out of the general fund or the 30 percent SAT funds.

“We can also take money from local A-Tax funds (LAT), H-tax dollars or the 65 percent SAT funds. We don’t have to touch the general fund for a for-profit.” Brock said. “Also, Ms. Hunter has applied for a 501C (3) which should be finalized in the next two to three weeks.”

When Franklin asked council members to state their preferences of the three submissions, Brock said MPA comes with recommendations from the town’s former and current administrators.

“She’s won numerous awards, and her qualifications are impeccable. A big part of her proposal is grant writing for no additional fees. She currently produces about $2 million in grants for her clients, at about a 66 percent success rate,” Brock said. “When she presented to us in September she said she could provide us with 41 free locations to market our events. She’s well connected and respected in the media world and has been doing this for a very long time… I think she will pay for herself very quickly with the grants.”

“If it’s all about grant money, we can hire a grant writer,” Baughman said. “They’re out there everywhere.”

Franklin then suggested that Brock was trying to push through a vote without debate.

“I will not spend a dime of tax payers’ money without being absolutely transparent, and not just hiring somebody because you say so,” Franklin said.

Baughman agreed with Franklin.

“Is this really what we need, what the town needs?” Baughman asked. At a previous meeting, he suggested that Blythewood markets itself.

“We don’t just call friends and write checks,” Franklin added in reference to Brock’s recommendation of MPA Strategies.

Franklin then called on Phil Frye with the Greater Blythewood Chamber of Commerce to present the Chambers proposal. But before Frye spoke, Franklin said he would defer to Brock to ask questions of Frye, saying that Brock, “clearly has a favorite and he’s going to disparage the chamber. Let’s go ahead and get it over with.”

Brock said he would let someone else go first.

Frye told council that he would be using chamber members to do the work, that all are professionals in their fields.

Councilman Larry Griffin questioned how much control Frye would be able to have over the project by subbing out the work.

Franklin came to Frye’s defense.

“Yes, it’s like building a house. You hire a contractor and they hire all the work out to subcontractors,” Franklin said.

“I’m looking for the best for the town,” Larry Griffin said. “A non-profit organization is not going to have in its membership all these professionals.”

“Every single one of my resources are chamber members. I do propose to use professionals,” Frye said. He also suggested setting up an advisory committee to oversee the projects that would include town administration and staff, chamber staff, the mayor and council.

As an example of the kind of service his professional sources could provide, Frye said with proper advertising for Blythewood at, say, the Masters in Augusta, “You could have people spending one day at the Masters and they could spend the rest of the time in Blythewood. We recognize these targets.”

When Brock asked Frye what the town would get for the 10 percent the chamber is asking for management and administration of the 30 percent SAT award, Franklin stopped him from questioning Frye, saying, “We’re going to question one RFP applicant and not the other two?” Turning to face Brock on the dias. “Is that the intent here tonight?” he asked.

“Can’t anyone ask any [of the applicants] a question about this?” Brock asked, pointing out that Hunter was present online and could be questioned.

“Ok, ask her,” Franklin said.

“Ask her what?” Brock said.

“Just ask her questions like when you call her references the phone numbers don’t work. Call her.” Franklin said, giving him the Cayce Mayor’s phone number.

Brock explained that he had called it and the number doesn’t have a message set up. Later, on screen, Hunter provided council with the mayor’s private cell number.

At one point Councilman Sloan Griffin futilely called a halt to the bickering and suggested the issue be deferred to the next meeting.

“So you want a for-profit agency and to spend the town’s operational funds on it?” Franklin asked Sloan Griffin.

“Don’t put that out on me,” Sloan Griffin said. “I’m looking at the best for our town moving forward to promote our events… Don’t put that out there that I just want to waste tax payer’s money.”

After another five minutes of back and forth, Hunter asked to come on screen to clarify some aspects of her proposal, including that she would not be compensated for any grant writing unless the town received the award, then she would get a percentage.

“I would like for MPA to be considered on our merits, what we offer,” Hunter explained, listing public relations, full grant writing, social media and website service. “We can offer all of that in one package.”

Council has invited both Hunter’s MPA Strategies and the Chamber to present and answer questions at their Feb. 22 meeting, at 7 p.m. at The Manor.

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