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Morris' tourism aspirations

The momentum for a wide-spread tourism push in Morris is building, but skeptics and challenges remain.

The first step towards a tourism initiative in Morris began in July 2009 when the Morris City Council approved a lodging tax - a three percent tax on the gross receipts of hotels and motels in Morris. The idea, at the time, was to use the proceeds from the lodging tax to support tourism efforts through the Chamber of Commerce.

In the three years since, the lodging tax has brought in about $28,000 annually for the City of Morris and has been used to help fund some local projects like Prairie Pioneer Days. But changes in leadership at the Chamber left the organization without a person to spearhead a tourism effort, and spending with the lodging tax has been inconsistent.

"Even though we got [the lodging tax] put in place, we've struggled because nobody knew what to do with it," said City Manager Blaine Hill.

When Paul Hendricks took over as interim Chamber Director in July following Karen Arnold's resignation, tourism was high on the priority list for moving forward. Although the city's Tourism Board had been working to keep the effort going, Hendricks said it really falls to the Chamber of Commerce to serve as the "convention and visitors' bureau" in Morris.

"There's been a wave building - the lodging tax is in place and has accrued some money, the Tourism Board is in its third year," said Hendricks. "There's a growing frustration on the part of some people who have been wanting to see progress for awhile."

Taking the first steps

In December, the Morris City Council approved a recommendation from the Tourism Board to reimburse the Chamber of Commerce a total of $23,398 dollars for time spent on tourism in 2010 and 2011, and set a $20,000 tourism budget for 2012.

The $20,000 is an estimate from Hendricks based on how much time he anticipates spending on tourism-related activities, about 33 percent of his time. In his proposal, Hendricks called this a "very conservative estimate," and that he could very well spend over 40 percent of his time on tourism.

The $20,000 is not a blank check from the city. Rather, the Chamber will be required to submit a budget and reimbursement requests to the city council through the Tourism Board and will be reimbursed quarterly, up to the city-approved amount.

"It can't just be an ongoing funding source for the Chamber," said Hill. "They're going to have to show results."

Developing the relationship

The relationship that seems to be emerging from this financial arrangement is a government and commercial partnership between the city, Tourism Board and Chamber of Commerce.

The city has the money collected through the lodging tax, which is specifically and legally targeted at tourism initiatives. The Tourism Board is an advisory committee to the city and works under the oversight of the city council. The Chamber of Commerce is tasked by the city to administer the tourism initiative.

Under the agreement, the Chamber is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the tourism initiative, including submitting a tourism budget and project plan to both the Chamber Board and the Tourism Board. The Chamber is also required to report monthly on tourism activities, including time estimates, and submit reimbursement requests to the Tourism Board.

The Tourism Board then reviews the reimbursement requests and budget and makes a recommendation for approval to the city council. Members of the Tourism Board also help to set the focus and direction of tourism efforts.

"The only thing I told the Tourism Board is that you need to find out what they're doing on a monthly basis and just keep deciding, 'Is this what we wanted?' and keep reporting back to the city council," said Hill.

The City of Morris has the final approval for the tourism budget and reimbursement request, a feature that Hill said was intentionally developed. The city is responsible for making sure tax funds (collected from the lodging tax) are legally expended and making quarterly reimbursements to the Chamber for expenses that are approved.

"If anybody is going to be blurring the lines [on tourism spending], we want it between myself and the finance director," said Hill.

Investing in tourism

Money collected through the lodging tax can only be used to promote and market Morris as a convention and tourism destination, explained Hill. If funds are used inappropriately, the tax could be discontinued or the city could be penalized by the state.

One big investment to jump-start the tourism effort was hiring HBH Consultants of Sauk Rapids to help develop a marketing plan for Morris. At a presentation to the Tourism Board in October, Senior Associate Katrina Pierson shared the first draft of a communications plan that included four new logo and tagline concepts.

An important recommendation from the presentation was identify a person coordinating the tourism effort from inside the Chamber of Commerce - "It just doesn't work to have a volunteer," said Pierson - and identify a clear chair for the tourism committee to follow up on efforts.

Rather than turn to a new employee, an agreement was reached for Hendricks to take on the lead role from within the Chamber, with financial support coming from the city through the lodging tax fund.

"I think Paul doing it was exactly the way it was going to work," said Hill. "[Before,] the biggest problem was that there wasn't enough money to pay for extra time or pay for having somebody do it. I think the Chamber is going to find out really quick that maybe now we can afford to do that."

The ongoing challenges

Although Hendricks recognizes the wave building for a tourism effort, he said he has put finalizing the HBH report on hold while working on building support for a more wide-spread effort to prevent cynicism or frustration.

"We maybe got the cart in front of the horse a little bit, in terms of worrying about tagline and logos before we worry about what it is we are going to market," said Hendricks. "I don't want to move ahead with making those kind of logo and tagline decisions without a broad enough base of input and buy-in, so once we make it people will be happy with what we end up rather than frustrated."

Hendricks said he hopes to get more community input through the process by developing a "tourism team" within the Chamber - separate from the Tourism Board - that would actively seek out input from community stakeholders. The team would be an opportunity to share information and get involved with the tourism efforts on a less formal basis than the Tourism Board.

Another challenge for the effort is developing the right attitude - what Hendricks calls a "hospitality mentality" - throughout town. Although Hendricks says he hasn't heard any push-back about the tourism effort from local businesses, there is an ongoing push to get people to realize all of the opportunities there are to market Morris and the reasons people would want to come to visit.

"We have things here that other places either don't have or aren't thinking about developing," said Hendricks. "We've got to have some care in how quickly we move, but we can't not move. We have to have forward progress."