It’s been almost a year now since I started working at the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, and I can hardly believe it. The time has certainly gone faster than I ever thought possible. It seems like yesterday I was just starting and people were asking what my goals for the Chamber were. Several people suggested that it would take about a year before I would be ready to answer those questions. Knowing what I know now, I see why that was.
Working for the Chamber of Commerce has allowed me to develop a unique perspective of the Knoxville community, allowing me to use my education in business administration. Unlike a consultant that comes in and formulates a recommendation based on statistical data and surveys, I’ve spent my time evaluating the external environment while working in the trenches on the front line. I’ve been able to develop a picture from the front row seats in meetings with key community leaders, as well as a big picture overview of the community. This unique perspective has led me to an idea.
The difficulty of my position is that it sets me up to be a hub of information, but doesn’t come with any actual power to implement an idea. Our mission at the Chamber of Commerce is to foster a vibrant business community through effective communication and stakeholder engagement. My only power is to communicate an idea based on the information I have taken in. It's up to the members of the Chamber as well as the other stakeholders in Knoxville to get behind the idea or not. So let's start a discussion and see if this is an idea we can get behind as a community.
Let’s be honest for a second. The Chamber has struggled in many areas in the past. It’s easy to see symptoms and point fingers, but difficult to truly diagnose the issue. Well here is my diagnosis: it’s the scope of work we are trying to accomplish without the necessary resources to make it happen. Our mission is specific, but it has broad implications. Many have hinted at this being the issue in suggesting the Chamber lacks focus. There are only three possible solutions to this problem that the chamber has had from the beginning, as far as I can tell through my research and past surveys. We can shrink our scope, increase our resources, or find an out-of -the-box solution.
Here is my out-of-the-box solution. It has two broad parts. The first part is to start a Convention and Visitor’s Bureau as a 501 (c)(3), non-profit entity with a board of directors and a full-time paid director. After all, we are a tourist destination; we should have someone in the community devoted to that purpose entirely. The next part is to start a Main Street Community as a 501 (c)(3), non-profit entity with a board of directors and a full-time paid director. According to the Iowa Economic Development Authority, “the mission of the Main Street Iowa Program is to improve the social and economic well-being of Iowa’s communities by assisting selected communities to capitalize on the unique identity, assets and character of their historic commercial district.” This is a worthwhile mission that we need, but it's also a mission that businesses outside of the historic, downtown district shouldn’t have to pay for.
So how do we do make this work? It’s important to note here that we need to start each of these as a 501 (c)(3) non-profit. This opens up the organization for the possibility of getting tax deductible donations as a charitable organization. Now here is where it gets hairy. I think we should reallocate funds that come from visitors to our town in the form of Hotel/Motel Tax to starting these organizations. If you read the city code you will find that it says in section 2 that the use of funds will be this:
A. 50% of said Hotel and Motel Tax to be allocated for tourism, recreation, convention, cultural, or entertainment facilities, events, and promotions pursuant to Chapter 422A.2 of the Code of Iowa.
B. 50% of said Hotel and Motel Tax to be allocated for:
1. Economic Development
2. Promotional Signage
3. Local Heritage Projects and Special Events
4. Residential, Commercial, and Industrial Development Promotions
5. Cultural Events and Productions
6. Streetscape Planning and Development
7. Other tourism, recreation, cultural, convention, and entertainment purposes
Funding a convention and visitors bureau is specifically mentioned as a potential purpose of these funds. The tax already brings in between $70k to $80k dollars a year. It's not just the $25k that the Chamber used to receive. Here is the beautiful part; by pouring this money into these organizations to help them get started, they will make the pot grow, and they are able to apply for additional grant money for our community. The reality is that a Chamber of Commerce and Government entities are consumers of money, we don’t create it. We are more like insurance companies that way; we provide a valuable service, we are assets, but we don’t create money. These organizations would be more like 3M, Weiler, and Hormel in that they generate money!
Ok, so maybe it's not such an out-of-the box idea. Other communities are already implementing this kind of structure. Newton is one community that is doing this, and these separate entities cooperate with their Chamber. This solves our issue by breaking up the scope of what our community needs among three different entities, and it generates additional resources in order to accomplish this goal. With the transitions the City is undergoing at this time, now is when we need to be starting this conversation. Let the City know if this is something you would wish to support or not, and why.
I would just like to conclude by saying that this is simply a personal observation of a potential opportunity from a resident and informed citizen. If this opportunity is to be realized, it will have to come from the stakeholders in our community choosing to engage to make it happen.