One night after a straw vote revealed Leesburg Town Council members’ desire to reduce funding for the county’s tourism body, they were urged to rethink their decision.
Several speakers came out in support of full funding for Visit Loudoun during the council’s Tuesday night budget public hearing. A day earlier, in a non-binding vote, a council majority supported reducing funding for Visit Loudoun to $60,000 in fiscal year 2018, down from its current contrition of $90,000.
Councilman Ken Reid had initially put forward a motion to scale down the funding even further, to $45,000, but Vice Mayor Suzanne Fox suggested $60,000 and Reid agreed. Fox pointed out that Leesburg has six hotels that pay Transient Occupancy Tax, significantly more than the other Loudoun town, Middleburg, which contributes an annual allocation to the tourism body.
But Fox and others who voted in support of the funding reduction stressed the need for more “accountability” from Visit Loudoun as to how the town’s money is being used to drive traffic to the county seat.
“I’d like to see some quantifiable evidence,” Fox said.
Reid, Fox, and council members Hugh Forsythe and Ron Campbell voted in favor of the reduction. Councilman Tom Dunn, one of the three dissenting votes, said he was satisfied leaving the funding at $90,000, as the town had decided to back away from its own tourism efforts years ago and turn over those responsibilities to Visit Loudoun.
The town and the tourism body are working on a formal Memorandum of Understanding to offer a measurement of what services are provided by Visit Loudoun for the town, and to establish clear benchmarks and parameters.
That was cited Tuesday night by Visit Loudoun CEO Beth Erickson, who was one of several speakers who urged the council to re-think the funding reduction.
“We all view return on investment through a different lens. The reality is we need a clearly defined set of expectations as well as quantifiable measures for the council to review,” she said, noting the MOU is almost ready for council review.”
Erickson said if the council cut funding this year, she hoped they would seriously consider going back to the $90,000 funding level in FY19.
Visit Loudoun board member and The Wine Kitchen co-owner Jason Miller said he views the funding allocation as “more of an investment than a budget item.”
“We’re probably getting a 5-1 return on investment with the $90,000,” he said.
Jackie Gosses, the regional manager for Liberty Hospitality Partners, which owns and operates the Hampton Inn & Suites and Homewood Suites properties in Leesburg, also spoke in support of fully funding Visit Loudoun. She noted that last year alone Visit Loudoun generated 12 percent of the total Transient Occupancy Tax revenue for the town—credited with generating 15,437 hotel room nights in Leesburg with an estimated $1.5 million in direct revenue. Leesburg is also beginning to see the fruits of Visit Loudoun’s labor, Gosses said, in the form of more mid-week stays in town. Long a strong performer on weekend nights, because of its popularity during wedding season, town hotels are now exceeding 60 percent occupancy on weeknights.
Perhaps most important, she added, was the collaborative environment created by Visit Loudoun, which brings together area restaurants, wineries, breweries, lodging establishments and more, under one umbrella. The groups are now all talking to each other, sharing information, and helping each other out, which was not always the case, she noted.
“That’s all due to the atmosphere Visit Loudoun has created,” Gosses said.
Town Council members are expected to adopt the fiscal year 2018 budget and tax rate at a special meeting Tuesday.
Town Manager Kaj Dentler recommended to the council that they complete the memorandum of understanding agreement between the town and Visit Loudoun, before any funding is given to the tourism body “to give some level of measurement.” The MOU is expected to be completed prior to the start of budget year on July 1.