Questions were answered this week about about the impact of Prestonsburg Tourism, following harsh charges from an organizer of the Hillbilly Arm-Drop Drags.
Tourism director Freddy James came under fire recently, after race organizer Kent Rose blasted James in the press and social networking sites for what he sees as a history of ignoring a potential tourism boon in the Arm-Drop Drag Races.
“He ignored us when we were racing on the streets, ignored what we did at the MAC, and he is ignoring us now,” Rose said.
Rose told Floyd County Times staff in September, prior to the most recent race, that he doesn’t have any ill will toward the tourism board, only its director, James.
In an effort to answer some of those question, The Times made an open records request of tourism’s past three years of receipts and expenditures, and questioned James about different facets of his agency.
Who can access funds
Not just anyone can tap into the Prestonsburg Tourism Commission’s $900,000 budget. Funds are only available to nonprofit groups or government agencies. A small business would have to look elsewhere for support.
“People can’t, organizations can, or non-profits, or city groups,” said Tourism Director Fred James, adding that a person can act as a representative for a group.
Applications go through the Tourism Commission. “I don’t filter any of them. They go to the Tourism Commission, not to Fred James.”
“Tourism has a 100 percent authority. Complete purview. Total purview. This commission speaks through its minutes. The plan for this office is much in the ink, that’s the budget. Those are the areas that I am obligated to spend, per item.”
James said some groups ask for tourism to help sponsor events like the Floyd County Rescue Squad fishing tournament, which they have tried to do in the past, though James says he can’t spend more than $300 on local grant projects. Anything more than that amount must be approved by the board.
The tourism commission splits hotel and restaurant tax revenue with the Mountain Arts Center and Parks Department, which includes Stonecrest and Archer Park.
Tourism has spent significant money on travel expenses. The question that arises from the amount of spending is if the community is seeing a return on its investment.
“That’s the challenge of this office,” James said. “When my brochure goes into a rack that we paid $15,000 to $20,000 a year for brochures and printing and space. I pay for that brochure and the space that we rent all along I-65.”
“How do I know what’s the ROI (return on investment)?” James said, adding that he gets feedback from the Mountain Arts Center and Jenny Wiley Theatre based on their tracking of where people come from. James says he sees his best market as being Charleston, Huntington, Cincinnati, Columbus and Louisville.
“As to actually tracking it, the person who can help me do that, we’ll hire them,” says James. “It’s really difficult.”
But James said the amount of tourism money in Floyd County is a good indicator.
“In 1990 there was $6 million in tourism expenditures in Floyd County,” James said. “In 2010-11 there was $63 million. You’d like to think, that where you’re advertising, and the fact that were blessed with the MAC, Stonecrest, The Equine Center, Dewey Lake, May Lodge, the science center, Jenny Wiley Theatre … Over the years, this town has invested $20-plus million in these attractions. You’d like to think it’s paying off.”
James said those involved in tourism tend to keep on doing what they doing, for fear that if they stop, the well will dry up.
When looking over the reports furnished by Tourism, Times Staff noticed the use of a debit card, checks and petty cash. Petty cash reimbursements stood out as a significant expense totally nearly $7,000 a year.
When asked how tourism chooses to spend its money, James said, “If I go to a conference, or on travel, the card is used primarily for overnight lodging, and meals associated with conference, and conference registration.”
“In other words it’s not used for anything except for official business,” James said. “I just want to make that clear, that everything is accounted for.”
Petty cash is primarily used by Misha Curnutte, administrative assistant with tourism, because, James said, there is only one debit card for the office.
Curnutte says petty cash is used most often for services that don’t take a debit card, such as vendors or lawn maintenance, and she also buys food for meetings through petty cash. “If she has something she has to buy, whatever it might be, below $100, we have that money to use that,” James said. Curnutte provided receipt statements upon request for the petty cash expenditures.
Based on those statements, “food for meetings,” totalling nearly $3,000 of petty cash expense in three years, appears to be the most frequent petty cash expense.
When asked about items listed on the reports as “contract work,” James said the items are not technically contract work. James says many of the items are “pass-through” money that flows through the tourism office from tour operators for entertainment. When asked if there was any type of formal contract written up for performers, James said, “If you do, then they’re subject for all that employee stuff, and we just don’t, we don’t do it.”
“The company hires them, and the money passes through us,” James said. “And we don’t have one dime of that money that hasn’t gotten paid out.”
According to James, local singers and the Kentucky Opry Junior Pros are often used for entertainment. The tour groups often visit other locations such as Branson, Pigeon Forge and Myrtle Beach, James said, but the one thing they most frequently praise in Floyd County is the homegrown musical talent.
“They are so impressed with this local talent,” James said. “The story of the Mountain Arts Center, they are so taken aback.”
According to James, his office will also occasionally hire a person to help with the considerable amount of mass mailings that the office sends out through the year.
The benefit of tour groups and how money is generated through their visits has come up a number of times over the last year.
James said tourism works to bring tour groups in, but doesn’t pay them to come.
“We don’t spend a dime to the tour group, except if there’s a case, like the other day a planner was not happy that there wasn’t cole slaw, and we had already quoted the price through the supplier. We bought the cole slaw. It’s just hospitality.
James said $38,000 locally was spent during a recent group visit by Abbott Tours. “I’ve been called a liar about that before the city council, by the way,” James said. “Because we were [allegedly] paying for those tour people to come here, and they were getting comp stuff.
“I don’t have anything to comp.”
James said the Abbott Tours group was the largest tour trip in the state, other than those for major events such as Kentucky Derby. “This wasn’t an event, this was trip, a travel trip. Nine buses. It was the biggest in the state of Kentucky’s history.”
“Nobody has gotten nine buses from one business,” James said.
James said Abbott Tours is really a feather in the hat for Prestonsburg, because they’d been here before.
“They asked their customer base where do you want to go … People gave their testimony to how much fun they had in Prestonsburg.”
James said that he does not choose where people in tour groups stay overnight and that everything isn’t ideal. Tour groups frequently ask about opportunities get out on the water at Dewey Lake, or seek other little “extra touches.” James saod he is limited on which restaurants he can use to feed groups because groups don’t want to use restaurants that have restrooms that require people to go outside.
Locations most often visited by tour groups include the East Kentucky Science Center, Mountain Arts Center, Loretta Lynn Homeplace, U.S. 23 Museum, May House, Jenny Wiley State Park and David Appalachian Crafts.
When asked what “want” is on the lips of tourists, James said he tries to listen to what locals say they want. Most often, James said, that is more activities for children.
James said tourism has not ruled out working with Arm Drop Drags in the future. According to James, the group has made a request of the tourism board, and that request will be heard in March when the board reviews applications.
“We’re still totally open-minded about doing something for Arm-Drop Drag Racing,” James said. “If everything is cleaned up, and people can get along. Outrageous allegations doesn’t give the board a ‘warm fuzzy.’”
James said the last request made by race organizers was received “without prejudice,” but the time for spending allocations had already passed for that year.