Discussion about consolidating Abilene Area Chamber of Commerce and Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau operations has surfaced again, but action on that proposal was delayed during last week’s city commission study session.
The proposed change in CVB and chamber operations isn’t dead, however. City commissioners decided to continue discussions about consolidation.
“This comes up every time there’s a change in the CVB director,” remarked Glenda Purkis, who volunteered to serve as interim director after the last director was terminated in July.
One reason the proposal has resurfaced is the absence of a permanent CVB director. Another reason is that City Manager David Dillner has 11 applicants for the position but he didn’t want to move ahead with interviews and hiring if the director’s position would change in the near future.
Chamber Executive Director James Holland had approached the CVB Advisory Board following the former CVB director’s termination, saying the chamber’s board had advised him to talk with city officials about “efficiencies to be gained with a more formal cooperation” between the two organizations.
City Manager David Dillner, Vice Mayor Tim Shafer, City Commissioner Bruce Dale, Chamber Vice Chairman Todd Moore and Holland had discussed the issue before Holland approached the CVB board.
Holland said that preliminary discussion had shown only “tepid” interest in talking about consolidation. DVB board members expressed the opinion that the two organizations should remain separate.
The city commission, however, formed a steering committee comprised of Mayor Dee Marshal, Commissioner Bruce Dale and Dillner to meet with Holland to discuss the proposal further.
The committee met twice and developed a joint proposal for to have the city contract with the chamber for CVB services and Dale developed another proposal calling for abolishment of the chamber and CVB and creation of a single entity — an Abilene Marketing Commission — that would assimilate the functions of both organizations in regard to growing business, industry and tourism in Abilene.
Proposed funding for the joint organization would be provided by the city — primarily the transient guest tax — and by chamber membership, event, seminar and marketing fees.
Some city funding would also come from income received through the civic center’s rental fees, gift shop profits and trolley use.
The steering committee proposal presented to city commissioners at their Sept. 6 study session listed Holland as the director of the combined organizations; Michael Hook as the tourism and events coordinator (he already is contracted by the city to do that job for one year), Jeana Lawrence as office manager (she already works in that capacity for the CVB) and the current visitor center staff.
If that staffing would be approved, Hook’s contract would be terminated and he would be hired as a permanent employee.
All staff members would be chamber employees and their pay would be set by the chamber.
The CVB Advisory Board and the chamber’s Board of Directors would remain in place with responsibilities they now have.
The chamber director would provide monthly statements to the city manager and would meet with the city commission quarterly to report on the combined organization’s activities with emphasis on expenditures relating to the city’s transient guest tax.
The city would pay an agreed upon sum for staffing and overhead.
The proposal suggested that the city would benefit from the consolidation financially because $25,000 (about half a mill) would be removed from the General Fund to subsidize the CVB and an overall staff cost reduction of about $40,000. The proposal estimated the city would see a net gain in CVB program funding because less of the transient guest tax would be needed to pay staff.
The proposal noted that, if the city commission decides to proceed with a possible consolidation, the next steps would be to draft a contract, consult with the CVB board and draft accounting and job descriptions and amend personnel manuals.
One objection to what had transpired with the steering committee was that no tourism professional had been included on the committee, Samantha Kenner, the marketing and communications specialist for the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home and a member of the CVB Advisory Board, said Sept. 6.
She admitted that cooperation between the CVB and the chamber has not been good in the past but said she had seen some improvement since both organization co-located in the Civic Center.
Purkis, who has witnessed several instances when the consolidation idea has risen locally, pointed out that cooperation between the two organizations is important for some events,but the organizations have different goals. “The chamber is a membership organization and the CVB is a DMO (Destination Marketing Organization),” she said.
Deb Sanders, who chairs the Trails, Rails and Tales committee that organized the recent kickoff event to the 150th Anniversary Celebration of the Chisholm Trail, said, “Abilene has more to market and that emphasis could be lost if the CVB is under (the direction) of someone who is not a tourism professional.”
The mixing of private and tax funds for a joint organization has drawn some objections from citizens, Marshall said Sept. 6. “They’ve told me, ‘Please don’t let our sales tax support a private entity (the chamber).”
Nothing had been said in the study session about sales taxes being included in overall funding for a joint organization.
Commissioners Shafer, Dennis Weishaar and Kari Payne said no one they had talked with supported a change regarding the chamber and CVB.
Payne expressed doubt about the chamber assuming control of the city’s tourism arm. “I don’t want to take my cleaning to a baker,” she said emphatically.
Marshall said she thinks the chamber and CVB should find more ways to work together but at present, “There’s no prevailing evidence that combining them would be better. We need to keep looking at it.”
While the steering committee continues to look at the possibility and benefits of combining the two organizations, the commissioners instructed Dillner to begin interviews with applicants for the CVB director’s position.