Selectmen Tepid After Chamber Seeks 20 Percent Funding Hike

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Business , Tourism , Municipal Finance

The Chatham Chamber of Commerce at the Capt. Bassett House in South Chatham.  FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM Saying they need more money to promote the town as a destination, the chamber of commerce is seeking a $15,000 hike to its town budget appropriation next year, representing a 20 percent increase over the current year’s payment.

On Monday, selectmen said they appreciate the chamber’s work to promote the town and could support some kind of budget increase, but they stopped short of approving the appropriation. Board members said they want a fuller picture of the town budget before acting on the chamber request.

The chamber’s FY18 budget was $182,294, which includes $75,000 provided by the town. Chamber President Stephen Williams said the organization is seeking $90,000 from the FY19 town budget. About $22,000 of the appropriation would be used to support branding and marketing the town as a destination, particularly during the shoulder seasons, Williams said. The focus would likely be on social media marketing and improvements to the chamber’s website, he said.

The remainder of the funds would be used to pay the wages for the staff of the visitors’ centers. Executive Director Lisa Franz said all of the current year’s town appropriation supported staff expenses, “with the salaries pretty much remaining the same. We pay minimum wage to our visitors’ staff,” she said.

The chamber of commerce and its sub-groups, the Chatham Merchants’ Association and the Chatham Lodging Association, hold more than a dozen special events each year to draw visitors to town. They have a voice in issues like downtown parking and the acquisition of the Eldredge Garage property, and have worked with the town’s economic development committee, Franz said. It publishes a guidebook for visitors and launched a new website last May.

In her draft budget, Town Manager Jill Goldsmith is recommending steady funding for the chamber at this year’s $75,000 level. Selectman Dean Nicastro asked why.

“I had a tough time with this,” Goldsmith said. “I really want to see some analytics, as a town manager.” But if selectmen see a budget increase as investment in future initiatives, they should support the increase, she said. “At this point, I think it’s a policy decision for the board.”

Asked by Selectman Shareen Davis whether the chamber is pursuing state grants for economic development, Franz said those opportunities are scarce. The chamber relies on the town and its members for funding, she noted.

“Typically 20 percent increases are hard-fought,” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said. “What are you going to use that money for?”

Williams said the goal is to support the town’s economic development goals through social media marketing, direct event marketing, and website improvements that allow advertising opportunities for the chamber. Those marketing efforts would target key demographics, he added.

Should the town provide the funds, Dykens asked how it might measure its return on investment a year from now. He asked whether progress might be shown as increased website traffic or a hike in the town’s meals tax revenue. Williams said a goal might be a small jump in meals and hotel-motel tax revenue, which tallied nearly $1.9 million in 2017. “There’s no doubt that some portion of those taxes is related to our driving people into town,” he said.

Board Chairman Cory Metters, a downtown merchant, said he and other chamber members received several emails urging him to attend the selectmen’s meeting to support the budget request.

“I was expecting a little more of a supporting audience,” he said, motioning to the nearly empty gallery. “I do think we need to get everyone engaged.”

In part acting to counter an apparent drop in summertime visitors to downtown Chatham during the evening hours, the Chatham Merchants’ Association – a sub-group of the chamber – has allotted $12,000 in this year’s budget for a new event: Monday Music in Chatham. Modeled after the very popular Port Summer Nights in Harwich Port, the event will feature live music around downtown Chatham on Mondays in July and August. Williams said there appears to be more competition among Cape towns than in the past for restaurant and lodging dollars.

“I hear people say Harwich Port’s the new Chatham,” Williams said. Some of the marketing dollars are designed to counter that trend, he said.

Nicastro said it’s clear that, were it not for the chamber, town government would need to have a director of tourism or some other mechanism for marketing the town as a visitor destination.

“I personally could support some sort of increase beyond the $75,000,” he said. Nicastro offered a motion to fund the increase at 10 percent, or $7,500. It is early enough in the budget process that those funds might be available, Goldsmith noted.

Board member Shareen Davis, also a member of the chamber, asked to defer a vote until more detailed information is available. Dykens agreed, saying the 20 percent increase would represent a tiny fraction – 0.57 percent – of the town’s proposed operating budget. While he said he would like a clearer picture of where the funds would come from, “I’m very supportive of the chamber,” he said.

The majority of the board agreed, and took no action on the chamber’s budget request.