As we begin a new year, this is a good time to reflect on what works well in our community. We believe one of those is Visit Stillwater, our destination marketing organization (DMO) created as the result of a vote of the citizens in 1985 to establish a visitor tax, which is collected by local hotels. VS has been recognized many times over the years with awards for excellence as a DMO, and VS president Cristy Morrison is a nationally recognized destination marketing speaker and consultant.
VS has existed in several forms, including as a subdivision of the Stillwater Chamber of Commerce, as a department of the City of Stillwater, and now as an independent 501(c)6 corporation under contract with the Stillwater Economic Development Authority, which is made up of the city councilors serving as trustees.
The News Press, in a May 8, 1985, article the day after the election approving the visitor tax, reported the net revenue of the just approved tax would be divided 75/25 between the visitor board (now VS) and the city’s centennial committee. It was further reported once the centennial celebration was complete “all of the net revenue will go to the visitors board.” This report is consistent with the reporting leading up to the election. In other words, the voters had a clear expectation for how the funds from this tax would be collected and managed. It would be collected from the hotels by the city and managed by the local visitor board.
That is not how the funds have been managed for some time. SEDA has been building a visitor tax reserve, with no particular stated reason for why the tax is not being expended for the voter-approved purpose. Some of the tax was also diverted several years ago for landscaping projects. And, after experiencing a $180,000 budget cut, VS requested $80,000 of unallocated visitor tax sitting in the restricted fund to partially pay for a repeat of the award-winning Winter Wonderland. The request was denied, apparently administratively since it never appeared on a SEDA agenda. So, instead, we had several artificial Christmas trees plopped onto the space, available for citizens to decorate, resulting in little additional downtown traffic and no sales tax collections.
SEDA recently conducted an audit of the VS financial records, covering the entirety of VS’s 3-1/2 year existence after it separated from city government. That audit has not been publicly discussed by SEDA or been released for the community to review. SEDA has, however, been discussing VS, and presumably, the audit.
The Oct. 15 and Nov. 5 SEDA agendas included items referring to “a pending investigation involving Visit Stillwater OK Inc.” Discussing an investigation is one of the reasons allowed by the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act (OOMA) for a public body to enter into an executive session. We fear, and hope we are wrong, SEDA trustees are abusing the OOMA to privately discuss the VS audit, and simultaneously besmirching VS’s reputation, rather than having an open and public discussion, as should be taking place.
If SEDA knows something we don’t, or has information that would call into question VS’s financial affairs or business practices, then they should have made those concerns public months ago. When the city manager was hired, transparency and public accountability were promised priorities in his administration. Mayor Joyce campaigned on the same principles.
Tomorrow’s SEDA agenda finally lists an item to openly discuss a “report on Visit Stillwater financial performance.” It’s about time. And the “report” should include the full, unedited audit. At this writing, the audit report is not linked to the agenda on the city’s website.
In the interest of our own transparency, we must disclose Cristy Morrison writes a monthly column for the News Press about destination marketing, and events in and around Stillwater. She has also, at times, served as a member of the editorial board. Our publisher, Dale Brendel, is one of 12 community members, from a wide cross-section of businesses and public bodies, who serve on the VS governing board. There is no compensation or other financial benefit from these relationships to either of them, or our respective organizations.
Concurrently with the “investigation,”SEDA has solicited proposals that could lead to the elimination of VS as our DMO. Eleven responses have been received from across the country, and even one from Canada. The Stillwater Chamber of Commerce has applied. But, there were good reasons to remove DMO responsibilities from them several years ago and, in our opinion, nothing has changed in that regard.
Is it really in the best interest of the City of Stillwater, or consistent with the vision presented to voters in 1985, to have Stillwater marketed by an organization that does not understand the fabric of who we are as a community? Are we better served by an organization with a governing board not made-up of our own citizens?
The current arrangement was established by a vote of the citizens. We believe such a significant change should happen only after full disclosure for why it is deemed necessary, with a subsequent reauthorization vote.
What do you think?