Regional approach limits St. John’s impact, tourism official says

Published 12:20 am Saturday, April 7, 2018

LAPLACE — Dissolving, or at least restructuring the River Parish Tourism Commission will likely not have an adverse impact on tourism and could even lead to a stronger and more collaborative marketing effort among St. John the Baptist, St. Charles and St. James parishes, according to one tourism official.

Joy Banner, communications director for Whitney Plantation in Edgard, said each parish should establish its own tourism commission to develop product, adding, when appropriate, the three parishes should collaborate for a regional marketing effort. She cited the challenge in the existing nine-member commission is a viable plan for one parish might get nixed by the other members.

“St. James might want and need something different, St. John might want and need something different and St. Charles might want and need something different,” Banner said. “None of us is wrong. The structure of the commission is not designed to create regional collaboration that is productive.”

She said the current structure is flawed because the commission’s culture is flawed and money being controlled by someone else complicates the process.

“All of an (individual) parish’s commissioners may feel this is what is best for our parish, this is how we should spend the money, this is what we should focus on,” Banner said.

“It doesn’t matter because you are just three people on that board. The other six are saying ‘no.’”

Although rumblings regarding the commission have existed for years, concerns recently escalated with claims of underrepresentation for St. John and ethical violations. For the past two months, several St. John Parish Council members have repeatedly called for the parish to withdraw from the commission.

River Parish Tourism Commission Executive Director Buddy Boe said he would present to his board a resolution from St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom’s office asking for a legal opinion as to how the parish can withdraw from the commission. The commission board meets later this month.

The tourism board is compromised of three members each from St. John, St. James and St. Charles parishes, with the appointments made by each parish’s economic development commission, council and president.

Banner could not comment on the ethical violations and admitted some may view her opposition in retaliation to her sister, Jo Banner, currently the communications director for the commission, being passed over for the job as executive director. Boe was hired for that position at the end of 2017.

“That is a fair argument,” Banner acknowledged. “It would be unfair for someone not to consider my relationship with Jo, but I’m the only stakeholder that is Jo’s sister.

“There are about a dozen other stakeholders that are not Jo’s sister that have brought up these same issues.”

The claims are many, dating to before Boe’s administration, and include lack of transparency, reporting problems, underlying political agendas and reports of commissioners being forced to vote a certain way under the threat of losing their position.

Perhaps Banner’s chief concern is what she perceives as a lack of transparency when it comes to sharing research data. For example, she said that if a tourist attraction is drawing more than 200,000 people annually, the general consensus is once those tourists are in the area they will filter off to other attractions in other parishes.

“We are in the dark,” she said. “There’s never been data to support that is what is happening.”

Banner added that long standing philosophy creates an unintended hierarchy where certain attractions have a stronger voice than others. She said because the commission has not changed from its original model of 17 years ago, or evolved to meet current needs, there are some plantation homes and other business complaining their needs are being ignored.

Banner is also questioning an agreement with Houmas House in Ascension Parish. Under the agreement, Houmas House is paying to be represented by the commission, which Banner said is “sort of representing the competition.”

She said by representing Houmas House, less money is being generated with the motel/hotel tax in each parish, which funds the commission.

“Houmas House does pay into (the commission) but that is another area no one has ever explored if this is a cost or a benefit,” Banner said. “It could be a benefit, but we don’t know.”

She noted in 2017 St. John’s motel/hotel came in at approximately $225,000, the largest of the three parishes. St. Charles generated about $200,000 and St. James approximately $60,000, although Boe recently pointed out St. James is already double where it was a year ago at this point because of construction projects bringing workers into the area.

“It goes back to return on investment,” Banner said. “How can you break down the cost? You can’t say it’s best for us to market regionally if you can’t provide some information and data to support it.”

In an appearance before the St. John Council and in an interview with L’OBSERVATEUR, Boe admitted communication has been lacking but he is increasing updates regarding meetings, resolutions and budgets.

Banner said the plan is not to rush into anything, saying there has to be a better understanding of the research, know who is visiting St. John Parish and identify their behavioral and spending patterns. Banner said the intent is not to shun St. James and St. Charles parishes but to create better flexibility for St. John’s marketing efforts.

“The way everything came down (in the past two months), it was a sudden awareness of things, some things that made some behaviors transparent,” she said. “That’s why it seems like a knee jerk reaction.”

“We want to take our time,” she added, saying a plan could take up to a year to develop.

Banner noted she is not opposed to the three parishes working together, with the caveat that all three come to the table as equal partners and make decisions that are optimum for the region. But she was quick to add there will be some occasions when it’s best for one parish to market its own product, such as St. John with its historic district.

“We just need different things, we are not adversaries,” she said. “If we had the flexibility to come in with our strong needs and market it regionally, it would be golden, certainly rival New Orleans.”

She admitted she was surprised the vote to leave the commission was split along racial lines, with five black St. John Parish Council members expressing support to leave, and the four white council members publicly expressing their desire to stay.

“I think it’s an issue of information not being communicated, not realizing the communication network is not as broad as we thought it was,” she said. “But when we are going out in our communities at certain events, there is a racial split at those  events and who is being represented at those meetings.

“So it’s not intentional; it’s a reflection that we need to do a better job of integrating our relationships and information.”

— By Richard Meek