The St. Mary’s County commissioners approved a renewed annual agreement with Visit St. Mary’s at last week’s business meeting.
At the March 7, 2017, meeting, commissioners first formally adopted the Tourism and Hospitality Master Plan as part of the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, and that October, the commissioners agreed to move forward with steps needed to create a separate nonprofit entity to carry out tourism duties on behalf of the county. That entity was created with the name Visit St. Mary’s Maryland, and in June 2018, the commissioners entered into a 10-year agreement and an annual memorandum of understanding with the group.
Chris Kaselemis, director of the department of economic development for the county, said at the meeting, “The agreement sets in place the long-term relationship between the county and Visit St. Mary’s … It does not legally bind the county to fund the group, however providing funding demonstrates the county’s commitment to the Visit St. Mary’s.” He said the MOU states the county will provide $400,194 to the group for fiscal 2021, a drop from the $430,937 provided to Visit St. Mary’s in fiscal 2020.
While the county stated its intention to fund a minimum of 38% of the previous year’s collection of the county’s accommodation tax, on an annual basis, the county is free to provide more or less than the 38% funding amount, Kaselemis added. Last year commissioners funded over the 38%.
The agreement also provides for no-cost office space for Visit St. Mary’s in the offices of the department of economic development, which is in the Potomac Building on the governmental center in Leonardtown. The department of economic development helps to monitor and evaluate the performance of the nonprofit with assistance from the finance department and the county administrator.
“As you are aware, Visit St. Mary’s has had a challenging couple of weeks, and I really want to state that the board has shown strong leadership … and has done a really good job,” Kaselemis said, before Regina Faden, chair of the Visit St. Mary’s board of directors, joined the discussion via conference call.
She told commissioners, “2019 and 2020 have been productive years for the organization despite leadership change and a global pandemic.”
Jason Aul, the previous director of Visit St. Mary’s, earlier this month was terminated from the position after making a controversial political post on his personal Facebook page. Aul was the inaugural director for the group.
This gives the organization “the opportunity to bring someone on who is very strong, very engaged and can really work with community members to promote our local businesses … the search has begun,” Faden said.
She mentioned they use the funds from the accommodation tax to focus on sales and marketing and destination development. “We’re dedicated to driving overnight stays … as we all know, St. Mary’s is a beautiful rural area and this is one of the strengths we see moving forward.”
To help businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, the group launched an active social media campaign to support takeout activity at local restaurants and they supported the “added value” BOOST gift card program, which provided “much needed cash flow during challenging times,” she said.
The Visit St. Mary’s board of directors consists of nine members, with two additions this year, including Leonardtown Administrator Laschelle McKay and Scott Sanders of Tobacco Barn Distillery, Faden told commissioners.
Commissioner Mike Hewitt (R) asked how someone can purchase one of the BOOST gift cards, with Kaselemis responding the list of participating businesses can be found online and gift cards can be bought directly from the businesses. He noted $35 gift cards can be purchased for $25.
“Has the program started benefitting us yet?” Hewitt asked.
“The idea is a direct performance measure,” Kaselemis said. “If they do well the accommodation tax would increase and they would receive more funding.”
“So it’s a wash,” Hewitt said.
Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) said providing the funding this year will be easy, but since hotels have been closed due to COVID-19, taxes will be affected next year and it’ll be harder to fully fund the tourism nonprofit.