Have you ever begun to plan an event and there was not a facility in the county large enough to hold it? Have you thought of planning a wedding reception and there were too few choices, or what was available was already booked? Or planned a ceremony for your Columbia County high school graduation and had to leave the county to attend it?
What if you were tasked to bring additional tourism or cultural events to Columbia County that would draw overnight guests, but you have no place for these events to be held?
As the county's destination marketing organization, the task of the Columbia County Convention and Visitors Bureau and its Board of Directors is to oversee this community's marketing and promotion as a true destination where people will want to visit family, friends, attend business seminars, enjoy a weekend at the lake, attend cultural events and stay overnight in order to contribute to the tourism economic impact of Columbia County.
While we have a tremendous amount of outdoor, family-oriented products with our lakes and parks, we are missing the necessary facilities to compete with other communities to attract events, conferences and meetings. We also are missing a considerable amount of revenue by not having such facilities. The time has come to remedy this situation.
A public/private partnership plan should be developed to create such a facility. The key is, of course, "location, location, location." Such a facility must be easily accessible and conveniently located to attract attendees from many areas such as Madison, Milledgeville, Athens, Atlanta, Vidalia, Savannah, Hilton Head and Columbia, S.C.
"Heads in beds" is a common CVB phrase. Guests who stay in hotels in Columbia County benefit the county and our citizens in many ways. First, the hotels experience higher rates of occupancies, which in turn they reinvest by hiring additional workers and purchasing products to support their facilities. Additional hotels are built and additional trained workers are employed in the county.
Next, guests staying in the hotel rooms pay what is known as an "occupancy tax." Columbia County imposes a 5 percent hotel tax on each occupied room. For every dollar received, 60 percent is used to promote recreation, enhance parks and recreational facilities, and plan local events that will enhance tourism.
The remaining 40 percent of the hotel-motel tax dollar is allocated to the CVB, whose role is to market all of Columbia County and work in marketing relationships throughout the region to help bring people to Columbia County.
The 40 percent funding not only funds the marketing effort, but also the salaries and administrative costs of the CVB.
The CVB is tasked to promote products within the community to attract tourism that will continue to provide increased hotel/motel revenue sales tax dollars in Columbia County.
This funding supports the county tourism needs and allows the county's citizens to receive benefits of reduced tax burdens by using the funds that have been generated from the hotel/motel tax dollars. Overnight guests are contributing to our tax base.
During Fiscal Year 2006, the total amount of hotel/motel tax revenue received by the county and CVB was $418,000; for 2007, the amount was $521,703, a 25 percent increase. In 2008, the hotel/motel tax as of the end of April has reached a total of $461,530.
Hotel and overnight lodging available in Columbia County will continue to increase. Again, these are dollars that fund the CVB and support tourism events such as those directed by the county's Community and Leisure Services Division and other entities throughout the region.
Our community boasts that we are two hours from all major venues, and we should take full advantage of the convenience of our location. By continuing to do nothing, we are accomplishing nothing but lost revenue that would be re-invested to support the wonderful quality of life that we Columbia Countians currently enjoy.
To conclude, I would like to modify a quote from Jim Cox, who was a participant in the county's 2005 Arena Study Committee: "Some will love the idea, some will hate it and frankly, others have been panicked by it, but one thing's for certain: Most everyone in the CSRA will have an opinion about building an expo conference center in Columbia County."
(Pat Goodwin is chair of the board of directors of the Columbia County Convention and Visitors Bureau and a member of the Development Authority of Columbia County.)
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