City, chamber disagree on the future of Visitors Center and depot

Written by Muleskinner Staff

(WARRENSBURG, Mo., digitalBURG) – The city and Chamber of Commerce proclaim they want what is good for the community but they don’t agree on what that looks like.
City and chamber officials had a heated discussion Monday at the Municipal Center where a variety of people spoke out against the city’s desire to hire a full-time tourism director. The city’s plan is to also move the chamber’s offices to the back of the renovated Union Pacific train depot downtown.
The meeting ended with no clear resolution.
Dan Houx, the chamber’s chairman of the board, said the chamber is doing a fine job at the visitor’s center.
“We, as a chamber, think that we can do it better than anybody because we have been,” Houx said. “We, as a chamber, maintain it, we pay all of the bills, pay the insurance, everything is up-to-date, there are no defaults on anything. We’ve held our end of the bargain of the lease.”
The Chamber of Commerce currently oversees the Visitors Center and the city’s tourism initiatives. The city released plans on May 10 to strip the chamber of these responsibilities.
The chamber receives lodging taxes collected from city hotels and motels. This tax is collected by the city and disbursed to the chamber for operational use.
The chamber’s responsibilities at the Visitors Center include anything that helps people know what Warrensburg is all about. There is one paid staff member who runs a majority of the center. This person provides a variety of information on amenities such as hotels, restaurants, phonebooks, maps and city guides.
Chamber officials say they were not given notice about the city’s proposal.
Mayor Charlie Rutt said there have been discussions in the past in changing the vision of the Visitors Center.
“Previous discussions about the Visitors Center did in fact occur before,” Rutt said. “If the chamber membership is not aware, I can’t be held accountable for that. But it is not a new topic. We have a plan. Creation of a new board and a new nonprofit, those things are true. We want to take things to a new level, and to expect the chamber to be able to do that probably isn’t fair. I think it’s time to look at doing things differently. We want to be more progressive.”
Councilman Dr. Curt Dyer said he has been against the city’s plan from the beginning. But if the city is going to move forward with the plan, he said the chamber needs to be included. Dyer said that the members of the City Council have handled the situation poorly.
Former Mayor Don Butterfield accepted the responsibility for bringing forward this plan. He said the city wants a more transparent auditing system of the funds from the chamber. He also addressed the erroneous rumor that the chamber was going to be kicked out of the depot.
“At no time, there has never been a decision or anything saying we’re going to kick the chamber out of the depot,” Butterfield said. “That was never our intention. We are going to do some reorganizing. Nothing against the chamber, just a new direction.”
Houx said there is still the issue of a lease.
“The chamber has a lease on the building,” Houx said. “It’s subleased. The building is owned by Union Pacific and it’s leased to the city for a dollar a year. And the city selectively sends it to us and right now we have a lease with the city for the use of the Chamber of Commerce. The lease isn’t up until Dec. 13, 2015, but it’s an annual lease. I’m not a lawyer, so someone could definitely change something in there.”
Houx wants the chamber to maintain the responsibilities of the Visitors Center.
“Ultimately, we’re here to work together,” Houx said. “Our books are open, our doors are open. “
Bill Bernier, past president of the board of directors for the Depot Renovation, Preservation and Maintenance Corporation, said the idea in the 1980s was to renovate the depot and then have the chamber maintain it.
“In order to prompt tourism in our community, the chamber prompted the establishment of a hotel tax,” Bernier said. “The ambassadors of the chamber campaigned to get such tax established in Johnson County, in Warrensburg. The ambassadors put a lot of personal energy and effort into that process. And then local businesses put money out to help with the campaign to get it passed, and it passed.”
Chamber officials said hiring an outsider to do the work of the chamber at the Visitors Center is financially unreasonable.
“The Chamber of Commerce is an association of business leaders in the community whose objective it is to grow the economy of the community,” Bernier said. “Tourism is business and if you are growing tourism, you are growing the business of the community.
“I think that it would be a big mistake, very unfortunate, if the chamber, which is doing a terrific job in tourism, is sidelined. I think it would be a break in trust with our community if the chamber is pushed into the back of the depot. Lots of people made donations, substantial donations. And the premise upon which those donations were collected needs to be honored.”
Bernier said the chamber can run the visitor’s center better because of the volunteers they have. He said these volunteers have the better interest of the community because of their longtime involvement.
Rutt said the chamber’s resources must be shared more evenly.
“Our needs and expectations of that staff are not fitting the needs of the chamber as a whole,” Rutt said. “We’ve been denying the membership full use of resource and talents of that staff.”