By Leslie Agron and Pat Fain
This coming Monday evening, the Oak Ridge City Council and the city manager will hold a work session that has the potential to become the seminal discussion on the future growth and success of Oak Ridge. This discussion will probably begin with the question of the city contracts with the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce ($250,000) and the Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau ($400,000) and, unfortunately, it may just end there. If this happens it could be another significant opportunity fumbled.
There are very legitimate reasons to question the continued expenditure of public dollars for the type and quality of results delivered by these two entities. The need for growth of revenue is real. Several years ago, without even a minimal public discussion of what kind of city we want to be in the future, the city and the Chamber entered into a series of open-ended contracts. That produced amorphous and inadequate results. The Chamber can well blame a lack of direction and vision on the city. The city can point to lots of sound and fury and fast food restaurants as being an inadequate answer to long-term financial woes and economic growth needs.
The fault was in the lack of specific expectations or a unified vision of the end goal. Without this, the people and the City had no reliability on what the deliverable was to be and no method of measuring any product received. The people can reasonably ask what they were getting for the $2 million or so that have gone into these contracts in the past eight or more years. Accountability for return on the investment of the city was not apparent. If we spent $250,000 a year, we should expect a traceable return in the form of tax revenue. Without this, the people are justified in their belief that the money was wasted.
As for the CVB, again we had a contract without specific deliverables and not reflective of a unified city vision. This allowed a small special-interest group to take control of the message of the city with no accountability or notice to the people. So what did we get for $400,000 a year? We got the magazine ads featuring, in dull green and sepia, the glories of bombing people into oblivion and a video on the city website extolling the virtues of the city while advertising parks an hour’s drive away. We got no reports on return on investment. The budget shows that for every $400,000 we spent we got back $400,000 in hotel taxes, but no reports of how many of those people had come here for business purposes that had nothing to do with our marketing. We also gained very small amounts of sales taxes. People coming here in response to marketing could only be counted by subtracting out business travel. Any way it is examined, the city seems to have gotten a negative return on this investment.
If we have a unified vision for the city and we base our expense of very limited dollars on this vision, we can hold our contractors accountable for a deliverable that can be measured directly as to its economic value. If we spend $400,000 a year on marketing, then we should expect at least twice that amount in return to the tax base. Anything less is a bad investment.
If we are to get value for our marketing dollar, then we must stop chasing unproductive audiences. We have spent more than eight years chasing the “historic atom bomb story” and are still not producing sufficient revenue to warrant the existence of a marketing effort. It is time to change the Oak Ridge story and to get public input toward a real vision of where our future lies. It is time to market those things that have the potential to bring in tourist (as opposed to business) revenue. Perhaps eight or 10 years of providing nothing to the revenue base is reason enough to put the contract out for bid?
We believe that people looking for fun and recreation for families might be interested in some unique recreational activities available here. The possibilities for further developing people-powered water sports and activities is worth a serious look. Tourist dollars are considered to present a tax rich formula for cities. They contribute to three kinds of taxes and require minimal public services for the revenue produced. The second highest source of revenue for Tennessee is tourism and we are not leveraging that potential. I-75 is the most heavily travelled interstate in the country and there are millions of tourists (yes, millions!) driving right by us bound for Pigeon Forge, Grand Ole Opry or the Florida beaches. Talk about missed opportunity!
Leslie Agron and Pat Fain are Oak Ridge residents.