Council Will Not Consider Visitors Center's Request for Mid-Year Funding
The Herndon Town Council decided not to hear a request for mid-year funding for the Visitors Center at its work session on Tuesday
Town Manager Art Anselene said the Sports Boosters requested $50,000 to help with the new turf fields at the high school, and the Herndon Dulles Visitors Center requested $20,000 to support its operations.
The council agreed to consider the request from the Sports Boosters at the amount of $25,000, however it will not consider the request from the Visitors Center. The Sports Boosters request will come from proffer money, or money provided to the town by developers. The money for the Visitors Center would have come from the town's general fund, which is paid into by taxpayers.
Council member Connie Hutchinson said the Visitors Center has been approved for a number of grants but has not received them yet. Hutchinson volunteers as the executive director of the Visitors Center and is the former president of its board of directors.
Hutchinson said the organization works to support the town’s restaurants and hotels. However the organization can’t promote one business over another, so it promotes all of them, she said. “In that regard, it acts as an economic development arm for the town,” Hutchinson said. She said the center assists visitors and residents with questions on things ranging from town services to area attractions.
Councilwoman Grace Wolf said the Visitors Center provides a service to the town, but she wants to know if the town is best served by having an outside organization handle the function or if it might be better to handle some of the services “in house.”
Wolf said she is concerned the Visitors Center’s board of directors hasn’t done all they can to explore other revenue possibilities. She said the board seems to be coming to the town as a first resource for additional funding, rather than through membership drives or fundraisers.
Hutchinson said the Visitors Center is not allowed to have memberships, creating a huge financial deficit. She said the organization has held a number of fundraisers over the years, but without membership it’s hard to find enough volunteers to do large fundraisers. She said it has received donations.
Hutchinson said it isn’t that the Visitors Center is going to the town as a first request, but as a last ditch effort because the organization has been unsuccessful in searching for other forms of funding. She said the town is considering requiring organizations that receive grants from the town to get half their operating funds from other revenue sources, but if the town is not willing to support the organizations, why would other possible grantors support them.
Wolf said the grant to the Visitors Center is the largest grant the town provides to any organization and she thinks that shows the town does support the Visitors Center’s efforts.
Councilwoman Sheila Olem said there is concern over whether or not the Visitors Center is worth staffing, or whether applications on iPhones and other devices could provide tourism information.
Olem said the problem she sees with the request for $20,000 is that when the organization received $32,000 at the beginning of the fiscal year in the summer, $20,000 of that money was already spent. She said the money already provided by the town was substantial.
Councilman Jasbinder Singh said, “Quite frankly, I don’t have any idea of what services are actually provided.” He said he questions how much the town is truly being benefitted by the organization.
Hutchinson said one of the challenges of the Visitors Center is that until recently, when she became a volunteer employee of the organization, she was prohibited from talking about the Visitors Center and how it served the community. She said the organization has been able to get the town listed in tourism magazines and on tourism websites.
“It’s been a challenge because there hasn’t been another voice for the Visitors Center,” Hutchinson said. She said now that she’s a volunteer she can talk about the things the Visitors Center achieved.
Wolf said right now they are looking at a fundamental shift in how visitor center services are provided. She said many of the things that are paper and people intensive and the organization doesn’t seem to include an adoption of technology. She said the request boils down to a question of where do they want the money to go and how would they spend taxpayer money smartly.
Wolf said at this time she would not support providing the Visitors Center with additional funding. Singh said his impression from asking others in the community is that it is not something he is convinced is a need.
Olem said if the Visitors Center needs more than 50 percent of its budget from the town to operate she has a problem with that. Especially when the town recently passed a resolution asking the Parks and Recreation Department to meet 75 percent of their budget by 2018, she said. “I can’t see funding an organization at 100 percent that isn’t providing a very obvious service,” she said.
Hutchinson said the initial desire was for the town to operate the Visitors Center, however it was the Herndon Chamber of Commerce that originally started it, and it eventually became a separate organization. She said the organization has struggled for nine years to come up with funding.
Hutchinson said if the town is interested in operating the Visitors Center that would be great because it’s what the board has been hoping for, but it would probably be more cost effective for the Visitors Center to provide its own funding and staffing, with some assistance from the town.
Olem said she doesn’t necessarily think the town should provide the service. Singh said he doesn’t see why the town staff can’t answer the types of questions the Visitors Center handles. Wolf said they could consider a contract service between the town and Visitors Center.
The council decided not to hear the Visitors Center’s request for mid-year funding. The request for mid-year funding for the Sports Boosters will be considered at the Feb. 8 public hearing.