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Historic Camden

Posted: December 1, 2011 10:52 a.m.
Updated: December 2, 2011 5:00 a.m.

A response was made to my recent proposal to City Council about needs Historic Camden has in developing our legitimate existing tourism site for the City of Camden. Needs that easily qualify for state- mandated requirements for hospitality tax usage. The response was, “When I heard one idea of funneling h-tax to Historic Camden I couldn’t help but think, ‘Here we go again … let’s just keep focusing on what we’ve always done.”

How so? What “focus” has Historic Camden received from the city “again” that has resulted in funding that’s “always (been) done”?

While the City of Camden does indeed fund Historic Camden, let’s be specific. We get about $13,000 a year from the City of Camden … and deeply appreciate that. Roughly $10,000 pays utility costs and the remainder, $3,000, goes to general operating costs. This has not changed in the two years since the hospitality tax, to drive tourism, has been in existence.

Hospitality tax generates, and I’m being generous, $600,000 a year. Historic Camden is getting 2.1 percent of the hospitality tax revenue. (This used to be paid out of the general fund, now it’s from hospitality tax funding … so no increase in funding despite the money now comes from a different bucket, freeing up general funding to the same degree.) If you subtract the amount that is paid back to the city by our electric bill, Historic Camden gets .5 percent of hospitality tax a year to go nuts with.

So I agree, in part, with the commentator: let’s do it differently! Why not give Historic Camden 10 times as much money, (still only a mere 5 percent), of the hospitality tax for a year? Stipulate that the money should be spent on ways to drive tourism to the city. Demand transparency and help set up a way to measure the effectiveness of a onetime $30,000 grant for a total single year donation of $40,000. After the year, reassess the return on investment. If it was acceptable, repeat the next year or consider increasing it. If it was a flop, don’t give the money to that project again … find some other Historic Camden program that might be a winner or another “tourist-related” City of Camden (private of public) initiative to support. Do this with 10 different ventures in the City of Camden that are legitimate “tourism” private and public related businesses. Encourage enterprise, creativity, and innovation by awarding $30,000 “prizes.” Make a City of Camden Tourist X-Prize contest!

As chairman of the Historic Camden Foundation, my “job” is to promote Historic Camden. But as a citizen, it’s not all about Historic Camden. There are many legitimate “tourist-related” projects that could be funded to come up with ways to actually create more effective tourist magnets to bring tourist dollars to Camden. Having this type of X-Prize program would only consume half of existing yearly hospitality tax revenue.

Returning to my board chairman “job,” Historic Camden has been doing things “differently.” Last year we invited “Benjamin Franklin” at no cost to the community to have a series of appearances over our Revolutionary  War Field Days weekend. We offered an invitation to all the public schools to have “Ben” (Art Yeaman) visit to speak at school assemblies. Only two elementary schools took us up on this totally free offer to them. When other schools declined the offer, we asked Montessori if they might like this. (They jumped at it and thanked us profusely.) We offered to have “Ben” speak to the Chamber of Commerce, perhaps as a breakfast program, again -- for free. The chamber couldn’t coordinate an event, but the free offers were made to have a professional speaker appear at a number of venues in the city. We’re not complaining, only stating the gift we made available to the community. The cost of having “Ben” visit was more than the $3,000 we receive from the city. But we hope that by offering value to the community, Historic Camden will be perceived as a resource to Camden and the county.

We’ve approached the city on joint ventures. If we are awarded money from hospitality tax revenue, we want to be good stewards of the money and want to work synergistically and mutually with the city and local businesses.

Because of its location off I-20 exit 98 Historic Camden functions as a de facto “welcome center.” Visitors stop in to see what’s going on for their visit. Our phone rings with requests for information about happenings in downtown Camden that we are not direct participants or organizers for. (Recent examples, Blues Festival, Fine Arts Center activities, Chili Cook-off … this last one during our Revolutionary War Field Days). We answer questions, direct visitors, (we’ve got a free restaurant and accommodation guide we use with visitors), and try to make anyone feel welcomed to Camden and introduce Camden to the 20,000 visitors we see yearly. (Did I mention visitors can come to Historic Camden for no admission fee? We may ask for a voluntary donation and if you want a guided tour there is a mere $5 fee … but where else can you have free daily access to a museum?) How about funding and coordinating Historic Camden for these efforts we currently do? We’ve already created a restaurant referral program to help benefit restaurants drive traffic. This is unfunded by the city.

What organization, public or private, greets visitors with as many hours as Historic Camden does? And it’s minimally funded by the city/county! With an operating budget of $130,000 a year, what local organization can claim to do so much with so little? Public events from Revolutionary War Field Days, to Jammin’ in July, to Armies through Time, to multiple symposiums a year, and of course to over 20,000 visitors a year are all part of what value Historic Camden offers to not only “tourists” coming from more than 50 miles away but also to local residents.

We’re not in the habit of telling the city how to run the “tourism business” but we’ve been in the “tourism business” for more than 40 years. At the city’s and county’s request, we’ve organized a Tourism Task Force to capitalize on our two “brands,” history and horses (this is also unfunded beyond the 3K a year current level of funding.) However, we’ve received no further input from either the city or county for how to best serve.

How about a tip-of-the-iceberg very simple single idea?

We’d like to put our staff and volunteers in 18th century costumes. Just like you’ll see at Williamsburg and Old Salem Village. When on official Historic Camden business I wear an 18th century outfit. It always gets comments and questions from the public and I can answer questions and sell Historic Camden. It works. It’s “different.” But it costs money. How can you measure the ROI from costumed staff? I’d simply ask the city to make suggestions on how to measure effectiveness.

As presented to City Council, we’ve got a huge list of projects to choose from. Why can’t the city/county look over this list and find items that will help not only Historic Camden, but the city/county as well. Give us a goal to reach and we’ll do our best … because we want to make a win-win opportunity to create a return on any additional funding we receive from the hospitality tax.

So before folks start thinking Historic Camden is doing “what we’ve always done,” check to see exactly what we really have done and still do at Historic Camden … and what “new” things we have and will be doing. Check out our new Historic Camden Blog, (just Google “Historic Camden Blog” --  it will pop right up.) Help us do things “differently” and consider that the way some might perceive as ways Historic Camden has “always done” may have been the results of underfunding or unawareness of what we really do.

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