The e-mail from the Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau to a long list of community and tourism officials last weekend seemed typical enough: The Future Farmers of America are in town for a convention, it said, so be sure to welcome them if you see them.
But the message provoked a strong and perhaps surprising response from generally reserved City Councilman Larry Schlesinger. Replying to everyone on the lengthy list of e-mail recipients, he used the occasion to vent his frustration with the “disappointing, if not alarming, rate” of decline in tourists coming to Macon.
When Macon Chamber of Commerce CEO Chip Cherry tried to allay his concerns by promising a change for the better once the new convention center hotel opens in the fall, the council member was not appeased.
“A swelling number of respected individuals in this community, including myself, are long past the point of frustration you describe,” Schlesinger wrote in response to Cherry, “(and) are tired of the same wearied excuses given all of Macon’s current assets, and are mounting what I assure you will be an unrelenting call for scrupulous inquiry into the languishing status quo and the absolute necessity of change.”
In an interview last week, Schlesinger said many influential and respected movers and shakers in the community have come to him questioning the effectiveness, management and overall governance of the CVB.
He said he has spoken to hoteliers who are disturbed by the number of conventions that have dried up. And the CVB is not properly taking advantage of the city’s geographic location, architecture and musical heritage to the degree that it should, Schlesinger said.
“There is dissatisfaction in this community that should not be minimized,” he said. “Obviously, things need to change in order to reverse the decline of groups and conventions that Macon has seen.”
Janice Marshall, president and CEO of the CVB, called such complaints “distracting” but said the organization continues to focus on its mission. Without a convention center hotel to market, the CVB has in years past had to redirect its approach toward recruiting groups that do not require such a large property, Marshall said. That will change as the Marriott City Center Hotel opens in the fall, she said.
“There’s always people who will wish you did something different or that you approached your mission from another direction,” she said. “All I know is we’ve done the research and we feel good about the results.”
According to the CVB, more than 133,000 convention delegates came to town in fiscal 2008.
The number of convention delegates was slightly more than the 130,000 who came the year before, but less than the 196,000 that visited Macon in fiscal 2004.
Marshall said the organization will release numbers this month announcing some of its successes. Current economic impact data indicates that travelers contributed $268 million to Macon’s economy in 2007, the most recent year reported.
The CVB is funded primarily through hotel/motel taxes — nearly $340,000 from the city and close to $1.2 million from Bibb County. Its $1.67 million budget for this fiscal year included $745,470 for salaries and benefits.
The CVB has 13 full-time employees, Marshall said, plus additional part-time employees though she did not immediately know the number. Schlesinger has not been the only council member to ask for changes at the CVB. He said he was in full agreement with his colleague Erick Erickson, who recently wrote a newspaper column suggesting the CVB be marginalized and a new, more efficient organization created in its place.
Erickson, in an interview, said the CVB is staff-heavy and lacks an ability to innovate. He specifically blamed the leadership there and said someone from outside the community should be brought in to run the place.
He suggested that the council’s Community Resources and Development Committee, which Schlesinger chairs and Erickson is a member of, could dig into how the CVB functions and begin asking pointed questions. Council President Miriam Paris could also appoint a special committee to take on that task, he said.
“The ball is rolling,” he said. “There’s momentum.”
Mayor Robert Reichert, who met with Marshall last week after the e-mails began circulating, said he still is trying to gather information on the situation.
He said no one has come to him with complaints about the organization and he is not aware of anything the CVB is doing wrong.
But, he said, Schlesinger is also a “very level-headed” council member, which makes some of the concerns that have been raised worth looking into.
“All I’m doing is hearing some of the scuttlebutt,” Reichert said. “There is a perception that the CVB is not doing what it ought to do. Is that reality? I don’t know.”
To contact writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251.