Chamber requests city increase Visitors Center funding


Gonzales Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Daisy Scheske Freeman pitched the Gonzales City Council on increasing the amount of hotel occupancy tax (H.O.T.) funding the city gives to the Visitors Information Center. Despite vocal support for the request from a few councilmembers, the city opted to allow the Gonzales Convention and Visitors Bureau (GCVB) Advisory Board to inspect the request and decide to recommend it or not before moving foward.

Statutorily, the city cannot give H.O.T. funds directly to the chamber, but it can allocate funding to resources like the Visitors Information Center. As permitted by the Texas Department of Transportation, the chamber operates the Visitors Information Center at 414 Saint Lawrence St. Freeman, who initially pitched the request during public comment at the Sept. 5 council meeting, framed her argument for increased funding by highlighting chamber accomplishments and comparing the Gonzales chamber to other comparable communities.

“This year, the Chamber of Commerce is asking that the city increase their contribution to assist with those operational costs,” Freeman said.

The city allocated $20,000 in H.O.T. funds to the Visitors Information Center for the 2018-19 fiscal year and is currently scheduled to continue that amount into the next budget. Freeman proposed the city increase its assistance to $41,335.51. Currently the Visitors Center assistance is divvied so the city provides 15 percent of funding, while the chamber covers the other 85 percent. Freeman’s request would shift the balance to the city providing 33 percent of assistance and the chamber handling the remaining 67 percent.

Outside of H.O.T. funds, the chamber maintains itself with membership dues and fundraisers. However, according to Freeman, the chamber operates the Visitors Information Center at a loss. The Visitors Information Center is open seven days a week, including eight federal holidays.

Though council could not act on the pitch during public comment, it was revisited during budget workshop at the request of Councilmember Gary Schroeder. 

“I’d like to see improvement for the chamber out of those hotel/motel taxes,” Schroeder said.

Councilmember Tommy Schurig concurred with Schroeder’s statement and later said, “the chamber is the heartbeat of Gonzales.”

However, Mayor Connie Kacir had concerns with the accuracy of comparing Gonzales’ chamber H.O.T. funds allocations to other communities and said she would rather funds be allocated to projects not operational costs.

Kacir had issue with some of the cities used in the Freeman’s example, saying the role of the chamber in cities like Luling and Giddings are not a “apples-to-apples comparison” to Gonzales’ tourism situation.

Freeman also compared Gonzales’ chamber to those in Smithville, Sealy and Schulenburg. All three of those cities are smaller than Gonzales in terms of population and use their H.O.T. funds for operational expenses. Gonzales allocates less H.O.T. funds than two of those three: Smithville receives $17,000 annually, Sealy gets $62,000 annually and Schulenburg acquires $66,100 annually.

Kacir said if the city was to dip into the fund balance, she would prefer it to be sustainable and provide a possible return on investment.

“If we’re going to go into the fund balance, I’d like to see it in something tangible, like a Main Street stage, or something like that, but not for operational cost,” Kacir said.

Ultimately, the council decided to allow the GCVB board vote to recommend Freeman’s proposal or not. Kacir said the council needed input from the board before acting and Councilmember Dan Blakemore agreed.

“So, if we make the final decision on this (Freeman’s proposal) are we going to rework their budget for them also?” Blakemore said.

Though the chamber had already brought the proposal to GCVB representatives in July, interim GCVB administrator Barbara Friedrich said Dr. Dawn O’Donnell, the GCVB board president, wanted to take the recommendation to the board after council approves the city budget on Thursday, Sept. 12. When asked to further clarify on the GCVB’s position on the matter, O’Donnell said “a proposed budget increase of better than 50% is considerable and does not correlate to inflation or addition of capital such as a larger structure with more staff. The visitor center budget needs to be reviewed carefully with regards to fiscal responsibility as well as adherence to H.O.T. funds approval guidelines for disbursement. As we have been without a tourism director for some time now, time allocated to examining the budget has been shortened.”

O’Donnell confirmed the GCVB will place an agenda item to discuss the proposal at its Sept. 19 meeting.