LENOX -- A Lenox Chamber of Commerce proposal to take over tourism marketing efforts from Town Hall, in exchange for a $64,500 infusion of taxpayer funds, has been met with a flashing red light from the town's legal counsel, Kopelman and Paige, due to a state competitive bidding rule.
The plan was presented by Carl Pratt, general manager of the Cranwell Resort and a Chamber board member, at the most recent Select Board meeting. Town Meeting voters in May approved $55,000 for economic development, including but not limited to tourism marketing, for the current fiscal year that began July 1. Some unspent funding remains from last year's $55,000 authorization.
Tourism promotion has been a town government issue over the past four years, including a failed effort by a New York marketing firm to brand the town through the slogan "Lenoxology."
The goal is to "take full advantage of the expertise provided by the Chamber leadership and its members," Pratt told the Selectmen. He emphasized that nonmembers also would benefit.
He noted that the town's local-option rooms and meals taxes were designed in part to help fund tourism marketing efforts in order to expand revenues from the levies, now estimated at close to $2 million a year. Pratt suggested that a Chamber takeover of marketing would benefit residents because a higher yield would help keep annual property-tax increases below the maximum 2.
Diners in Lenox pay a 7 percent state and local meals tax, with 0.75 percent coming back to the town. The lodging tax, 11.7 percent, is divided between the town (6 percent) and the state (5.7 percent).
The apparently doomed $64,500 funding request included $20,000 as seed money for events proposed to and approved by the Select Board, $25,000 for an events coordinator and developer to be hired by the Chamber, $10,000 for marketing via Google display ads and the Berkshire Visitors Bureau, and $11,500 for Lenox.org website and social media maintenance.
Selectman Channing Gibson, emphasizing his appreciation for the efforts by Pratt and the Chamber "to move the ball down the field," told The Eagle that Kopelman and Paige has vetoed the business organization's proposal for financial support from the town as a potential violation of the state law requiring competitive bidding anytime the town funds an individual or a project for $5,000 or more.
"The lump-sum money proposal seems not to be possible," Gibson added. "But we want to hold on to the interest of the business community in helping the town achieve its marketing goals and figure out new ones. We want input from smart, really experienced people to take the burden of the creative process off the Selectmen's shoulders."
At the meeting, Gibson also had noted that some of the $55,000 approved by voters is being targeted for economic development, such as recruiting businesses and residents to move into town, and to carve out an identity for the town -- "is it all tourism or is [it] not?"
He expressed concern that Chamber leaders had not provided an expected "strategic vision" for economic development. But Pratt said turning over tourism promotion to the organization would lead to a "live and work" package designed to entice visitors to move into town and start businesses.
Gibson also questioned the absence of social media activity at the Chamber. Pratt responded that specific expertise, currently lacking at the organization, is needed for that form of marketing.
"You don't think it's a reasonable request to the director of the Chamber?" Gibson queried.
"I don't," replied Pratt. "It's unfair to be critical of the Chamber based on the fact that a person isn't doing what you want us to do when we're not getting support."
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