County renews tourism contract

May 7—The Board of Cherokee County Commissioners has renewed the county's contract with the Tahlequah Chamber of Commerce's tourism arm, but not without controversy.

The Greater Tenkiller Area Association was vying for the contract held by TACC's Tour Tahlequah/Explore Cherokee County agencies to promote tourism and provide marketing services.

District 1 Commissioner Bobby Whitewater said the contract earmarks 75% of the county lodging tax to support Cherokee County tourism.

Greater TenKiller board member Austin Spears, of Arrowhead Resort, told the commission prior to the vote that he had secured signatures of residents and stakeholders who wanted the county to jettison its deal with the Chamber and contract with his association.

"You guys probably have a packet that shows the signatures of the support that I got that supports this tax going to GTAA, and the reason for that is, due to the fact the marketing of the city ... only allows about 45% to 50% of the marketing budget with GTAA, you are looking at about 73% of that budget going toward marketing," Spears said.

Spears affirmed he is involved with the city.

"They're doing two different things. They're doing the city and the county. Does it not make sense to focus on one thing? You have the city focused on the city and then you have the county focusing on the county. In my opinion, I think that's common sense," he said.

Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Nathan Reed said the Chamber has administered the city's tourism dollars for several years. The county tourism tax was adopted by a ballot measure in 2021, and Reed said TACC led the charge in securing community support for the measure.

"The reasoning behind that is we understand what a comprehensive tax could do for the county," Reed said. "We already had the city. We worked with the city for many years on their collections, and so we know we were missing something by not having the county. Having only the city limited our ability to market as well as we wanted to. We knew the river, we knew the lake, brings those people to Tahlequah. We needed to make sure we had the opportunity to market them as well as we could, because just like your tax is limited to Cherokee County being spent. That tax is limited to what's best for the city."

Reed said combining the city and county efforts made sense, adding that co-mingled dollars could be stretched more and allow for a bigger budget for the county as a whole. Reed said this year, they are projected to spend 60% on marketing and 40% on administration.

Spears said the idea of co-mingling budgets worries him, as taxpayers voted to keep them separate.

The TACC does not actually put funds together, Reed said, explaining that there are separate accounts maintained at different banks.

"When I say [co-mingle] what I mean is when we place an ad in the Travel OK, instead of it just being Cherokee County that pays $5,000 for this ad, we put Tour Tahlequah, Explore Cherokee County on it, and instead only $2,500 of Explore Cherokee County are being put toward that ad, and Tour Tahlequah pays that other $2,500," Reed said. "We can take the tourism money from the county and stretch them because we have that partnership capabilities."

Greater Tenkiller Executive Director Kenyatta Wright said he works with the state a great deal.

"There's been a lot of stuff happen in our tourism department. You've seen a lot of people leave our tourism department and the main reason was because of mismanagement of approach," he said.

Genny Maiden, GTAA secretary and owner of Terrapin Peak Bed, Breakfast, and Beyond, said Greater Tenkiller would operate efficiently, overhead would never be over 35%, and Cherokee County money would only be spent on the county.

"For me, what stands out the most is going from 45%-50% on overhead to 27%," District 3 County Commissioner Clif Hall said. "That's just a good business decision. That's what I see that stands out the most. If you're getting more money into advertising and less into admin, thats' what we want to see as leaders of the county."

Hall voted for the contract to go to GTAA. Whitewater and District 2 Commissioner Chris Jenkins voted in favor of renewing the contract with the Chamber of Commerce.

"I would really like to stay with the Chamber myself, personally, because Tahlequah Chamber is in Tahlequah and we're splitting the finances with Tahlequah," Whitewater said prior to the vote. "The city of Tahlequah is in the heart of Cherokee County. I mean, it's not focusing on anybody else but Tahlequah, which is in Cherokee County."

In a prepared statement issued after the meeting, recently resigned TACC Tourism Director Gena McPhail said she was not surprised that two of the county commissioners — Whitewater and Jenkins — voted against the Cherokee County Lodging Tax moving to another agent.

"Through conversations the last few weeks, it is clear that they don't understand the tax or the importance of marketing the area in a dynamic way," McPhail said. "Clif Hall made a great statement: 'It's just good business to be able to have over 20% more money to go toward marketing versus the 50% administrative costs that the TACC has budgeted.' When local county businesses are complaining about lack of marketing, when the TACC president is not personally connected with county business owners, when a local county commissioner — Cub Whitewater — cancels a meeting with a prominent river business owner strictly because his secretary was not invited, the lack of professionalism and sincerity goes completely against the original vision of Explore Cherokee County. I have never heard of anyone in public office to vote totally against his/her constituents, until today."

Following the meeting, Reed said in a prepared statement that the TACC and Tourism Department appreciate the commissioners' continuation of the County Lodging Tax.

"We thank them for the vote of confidence in our marketing and will continue to grow and improve that marketing reach and quality to continue the unprecedented growth pattern in Cherokee County tourism," Reed stated. "We also want to thank those who came and showed an interest in how these funds are spent. Involvement by all stakeholders is important to help drive a cohesive message and we look forward to partnering with everyone involved to achieve that message."

The Tourism Committee meets on the second Thursday of each month at 8 a.m. at the Chamber office and all are welcome to attend, he added.

What's next

The Cherokee County Commission will meet again May 20 at 9 a.m. at the courthouse.