PORT WENTWORTH, GA — FRIDAY, OCT. 2, 2020 – The City of Port Wentworth did not add the Port Wentworth Chamber of Commerce’s annual contract for tourism marketing promotion to the agenda of the September 24, 2020 regular meeting of Mayor and Council. A motion was made and seconded to add the contract to the agenda. The motion failed by a 4-2 vote of council, allowing the chamber’s contract to expire. Council members Lynwood Griner, Herschel Hodges, Linda Smith, and Glenn “Pig” Jones voted against allowing the chamber to present before council and the public. Previously, the contract had directed a portion of the city’s hotel/motel taxes to the chamber for the purpose of promoting tourism. The chamber commends council members Thomas Barbee and Mark Stephens for wanting to listen to the comprehensive tourism plan developed by the chamber and its partners to continue its efforts to successfully attract new visitors and investment to our community.
The chamber carefully and accurately followed the regular, agreed-upon process for contract renewal since this past spring. The chamber has a long history of acting in accordance with the city’s wishes, obeying all procedures and working in partnership with city officials on a variety of events and initiatives. Despite multiple attempts on the chamber’s behalf to come to a compromise and work out an agreement, the city has effectively put an end to all efforts. Currently, there is no marketing agency for the city.
The chamber was never permitted the opportunity to present its fiscal year 2021 marketing plan, which is a cornerstone component of the annual city/chamber contracting process. No reason was ever given for the city’s refusal to review the plan. The city’s actions ignore the effective marketing of the city by the chamber and its many partners. The city will simply allow that money to accumulate until they find another entity with which to partner on tourism promotion efforts.
Council member Mark Stephens presented information at the September 24, 2020 council meeting of a newly formed Port Wentworth Tourism Bureau, Incorporated, recently registered with the Georgia Secretary of State. The public registration lists the registered agent as Avril Roy Smith (CEO), Carol Elwell Litzinger (Secretary), and Dimas Cardaso (CFO). No information on this entity is listed on the IRS website as having been granted the non-profit 501(c)6 designation required by Georgia law to contract with the city for tourism promotion. The entity is unknown. When Mr. Stephens asked if any members of council had been communicating with any of the individuals listed as officers of the Port Wentworth Tourism Bureau, Incorporated, about contracting with the city to provide tourism marketing services, some answered no and some chose not to comment.
The Port Wentworth Chamber of Commerce was the only entity to respond to the city’s request for proposals (RFP) for the tourism contract. Some members of the city’s leadership made the decision to abandon the process set forth in the RFP and, without consideration of the entire council, let the chamber’s contract expire on September 30, 2020.
Rumors have circulated that the Port Wentworth Chamber engaged in illegal or improper activity regarding the tourism RFP by communicating with other chambers during the process. The chamber communicates with other chambers constantly. Effective marketing requires communication between these entities. The RFP made no such requirements that communication between entities was not allowed and listed no restrictions. There is no basis for accusations of illegal or improper activity. It is simply not true and is a continuation of unsubstantiated attacks on the chamber for unknown reasons.
Although this setback is disheartening, the Port Wentworth Chamber of Commerce intends to maintain offices in the city and will continue to operate and represent the businesses and residents of Port Wentworth, as it always has.
This action to hold on to taxes our hotel/motels collect and stop all advertising and marketing efforts to attract visitors to Port Wentworth will have a long-lasting negative impact on hospitality and tourism businesses. Especially in a time when many are still suffering from the current economic climate and being forced to make difficult business decisions.
This action by the city will inhibit travel, overnight stays, and visitor spending in our city. This action also has an impact on hospitality and tourism industry jobs. These businesses employ our friends and neighbors that work in the hospitality industry. The city is not doing its part to help businesses get back on their feet at this time by choosing to completely shut off support to these businesses. The real impact will be felt by the hotels/motels, restaurants and other businesses who rely on the chamber attracting visitors to our city.
The chamber has always excelled at tourism promotion and the chamber will continue to be an advocate for businesses in Port Wentworth. Destination marketing is a long-term process. While the city says it will eventually spend the hotel/motel tax dollars they plan to hold, delaying the process and not having a marketing agency to promote the area will set the city and our hospitality businesses back. Port Wentworth will miss important participation deadlines, marketing opportunities and exposure during a critical time when local businesses need assistance to reconnect with prospective travelers.
Port Wentworth hotels, motels, restaurants, and other businesses that rely on tourism dollars to thrive have created a statement to the City of Port Wentworth. The message is clear. By abandoning all tourism marketing efforts and cutting ties with our chamber of commerce, you are risking more than the chamber losing the tourism contract, you are risking the financial health of local businesses.
“As a community-oriented entity, the chamber of commerce has always proudly sung the praises of Port Wentworth and our business community. Drawing visitors and newcomers in has been a priority from the beginning, and we are proud to say we have surpassed expectations in that area. Hotel/motel rates here were up before COVID-19 hit, tourism spending has brought in over $7.3 million in hotel/motel tax collections over the past 10 years and, in general, it is apparent that more people are aware of all Port Wentworth has to offer in terms of attractions, lodging, eateries and location convenience,” Chamber President and CEO Trisha Growe said. “We’ve accomplished much in the way of tourism promotion, and we do plan to continue supporting the hospitality businesses and branding the city as an attractive place to visit. But without the city’s contract and support, we will be focusing more of our attention on advocating for the Port Wentworth business community, beginning Oct. 1. We hope our increased efforts will make up for the shortfall our local businesses might feel since the city removed its support.”
For more information on the chamber, please visit https://visitportwentworth.com/ or follow the chamber on social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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