Last night, during a committee meeting of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, Commissioner Alicia Ping made public the fact that several of her fellow commissioners had attempted to broker a “backroom” deal that would close the Ypsilanti Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (YACVB) and effectively shift its $1.1 million budget to the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (AAACVB). According to Ping, her fellow commissioners, who had called this private meeting with members of the YACVB board, not only gave the mistaken impression that they spoke on behalf of the entire board, but they employed “veiled threats” in hopes of securing a deal that would see the Ypsilanti bureau defunded and closed. Here’s video from last night’s meeting. The woman speaking is Commissioner Ping.
Having been made aware of this, I called Debbie Locke-Daniel, the head of the Ypsilanti Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, and asked whether or not she was at the “backroom” meeting referenced by Ping, and, if so, what was said by those Commissioners present. Here’s our discussion.
For those of you who aren’t able to listen, here are a few of the highlights:
According to Locke-Daniel, four members of the Board of Commissioners were present at the meeting referenced by Ping. They were, Conan Smith, Andy LaBarre, Felicia Brabec and Ronnie Peterson. These four made it clear to Locke-Daniel and members of the YACVB board that they had the votes necessary to defund their organization and move the funds to the AAACVB, with or without their consent. They did not say, however, who would cast the fifth and deciding vote. [There are nine members of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, and it would require a majority, or five votes, in order to force a merger of bureaus.] I asked Locke-Daniel if it could be possible that they were bluffing about having a fifth vote, hoping to get them to agree to terms of merger without having to first call a vote, and she said that she wasn’t sure. She did say, however, that it could just be that they didn’t want to have their fifth person with them, as having a closed meeting in which a majority of our County Commissioners were present would have been a violation of the Open Meetings Act.
When asked why Ronnie Peterson, who is Ypsilanti’s representative on the board, had chosen to cast his vote with those commissioners trying to defund the YACVB, Locke-Daniel gave a response that I didn’t quite understand. She said, if I understood correctly, that Peterson had told her that he was voting for a merger as it was a forgone conclusion, and he wanted to be able to secure the best deal possible for the people of Ypsilanti. As they apparently told Locke-Daniel that, with Peterson’s vote, they had the five they needed to force a merger, though, this doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. If they have five votes with Peterson, that means they would only have four without him, which wouldn’t be enough to force a merger.
We didn’t get into a lot of detail concerning what was offered during this closed-door meeting in order to get Locke-Daniel and her team onboard, but it sounds as though local control of funds was off the table. So, even if the agreement called for the same amount of dollars to be spent in Ypsilanti, it would be up to a board composed largely of Ann Arbor appointees to decide where and how said funds should be spent.
I’m not sure where exactly this leaves us. In spite of all of the letters of support in favor of keeping our own bureau dedicated to promoting Ypsi as something other than a community in proximity to Ann Arbor, it looks as though a group of commissioners is committed to the idea of moving the money to the AAACVB, and I’m not sure how we change that. My only thought at this point is that we should all start calling and writing Ronnie Peterson, asking him to reconsider his decision to vote against the wishes of the community he was hired to represent. [If you do get through to Ronnie, please leave a comment here and let me know how he responds to you.]
As for Ping’s reference to “veiled threats,” I didn’t get into it with Locke-Daniel, but, based on Ping’s public comments, it would seem reasonable to assume that the representatives from Ypsilanti were told that, if they didn’t accept the deal being offered, they could expect to see no spending on behalf of Ypsilanti once the bureaus merged.
HERE, BY WAY OF BACKGROUND, IS SOMETHING I’D WRITTEN EARLIER THIS SUMMER ABOUT THESE ATTEMPTS ON THE PART OF CONAN SMITH AND COMPANY TO FORCE A MERGER BETWEEN OUR RESPECTIVE BUREAUS.
(M)embers of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners are considering the possibility of forcing a merger between the Ypsilanti Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (YACVB) and its counterpart in Ann Arbor. This, as I understand it from my sources, is something that the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (AAACVB) has been trying to see accomplished for over a decade, but it would seem that they may have finally gotten enough support at the County level to make it happen, and it has me wondering what the impact might be for Ypsilanti, which, in my opinion, has been doing an increasingly good job these past few years of promoting itself as a City with its own unique character, independent of Ann Arbor.
The idea behind this – the idea that we should brand ourselves consistently across the County as “the greater Ann Arbor region” – by the way, isn’t new. I can remember back, over a decade ago, when it was decided to replace our regional economic development group, the Washtenaw Development Council, with what we now call Ann Arbor SPARK. The brand that resonates with people outside the region, we were told, wasn’t Washtenaw County, but Ann Arbor, and, given that, we should let them take the lead. We’d all benefit, they said. And, it would seem, we bought into it, thinking that we’d have a better chance of attracting the interest of developers and the like. All we had to do was submit to the all-powerful Ann Arbor brand and become part of “the greater Ann Arbor region.” A dozen years or so into the experiment, I don’t know that we can call it a victory for Ypsilanti. While Ann Arbor continues to grow by leaps and bounds, all that we have, after a decade, is a new dollar store.
Along these same lines, we were told a few years ago that for the sake of efficiency, we should combine our Chambers of Commerce. We were assured at the time that the new entity would maintain a presence in downtown Ypsilanti, and they did… for a little while. Eventually, that office closed. Now, from what I hear, we have one Chamber employee, who can, “every once in a while,” be found at a desk inside SPARK East.
[note: According to Angela Barbash, the founder of Ypsilanti’s Reconsider, the Chamber presence in Ypsilanti is virtually nonexistent these days. “I haven’t seen a Chamber representative at SPARK East for at least nine months,” she told me today. “They don’t even make an appearance at the monthly ‘start your own business’ class that’s held there.” She went on to say, “I should also note that the Chamber was unresponsive to three outreach requests we made last fall when we were launching venture LOCAL. We were definitely disappointed.”]
…So, you’ll have to excuse me if I’m a bit skeptical when told that Ypsilanti will come away from a merger better than we went into it. Ceding our uniqueness, I think, to become just another part of “the greater Ann Arbor region,” would be a huge mistake.
And, when I say that Ypsi’s identity would be lost, by the way, I’m not just being paranoid. Sean Duval, the board chair of the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau told the Ann Arbor News, “It’s absolutely our vision to see one countywide marketing agency, one voice for the Ann Arbor area.”
How can two completely distinct cities speak with a single voice? And why is it that they should have to? Are people really out there, staring at their computer screens, completely bewildered by the fact that two cities less than ten miles apart define themselves differently? Are there people really out there saying, “Wow, I really wanted to go to Ann Arbor for vacation, but I see that there’s a different town a few miles away with a different name and a different idea as to how to promote themselves, and I’m so damned confused that I’m going to stay home”?
Apparently, in the opinion of Joseph Sefcovic, the president of the Washtenaw County Hotel and Motel Association, the answer is, “Yes.” In a letter sent to the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners on January 22, Sefcovic wrote, “maintaining two CVBs creates an undeniable identity crises and confusion for our region.”
Have you ever met anyone… even one person… who is confused by the concept that Ann Arbor is one city, and Ypsilanti is another?
Before we go one step further, I’d like to ask Duval and Sefcovic to provide examples of this confusion, and evidence that it has cost Ann Arbor tourism dollars. If it’s as big of a problem as they suggest, I don’t imagine it will be too difficult of a task.
Of course, it’s also possible that this has absolutely nothing to do with confusion, and everything to do with money. There is, after all, a lot of money on the table. And it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Ann Arbor’s hotel owners wanted it all for themselves, to promote their message, and to try to pull more big events into their city, at the expense of Ypsilanti. But who would be so cynical as to suggest that?
Following, from the Ann Arbor News, are the financials.
…Every hotel bill in the county includes a 5 percent tax–raised from 2 percent in 2009–that is levied to fund the area’s convention and visitors bureaus. The county keeps 10 percent of the funds raised for administration costs, and then splits the remaining 90 percent between the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Ypsilanti Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The AAACVB receives 75 percent of the available funding while the YACVB gets the remaining 25 percent. Revenue captured by the tax has risen significantly each of the past two years. The county collected $4.68 million in 2013 and unaudited figures show the tax generated $5.21 million in revenue in 2014.
Under the current revenue splitting contracts, which expire in 2015, the Ypsilanti area bureau received approximately $1.17 million from the taxes collected in 2014 and the Ann Arbor area bureau received about $3.52 million…
Agreeing to give Ypsilanti 25% of a smaller pie may have been more palatable. But, as the pie gets bigger, I have to think there are people in Ann Arbor who are thinking, “Just imagine what we could do with another $1.17 million.”
So, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners voted on March 4 to call together a task force to look at how the county distributes the monies brought in via the excise tax. They, as I understand it, can’t technically force a merger, but they have the power to shift where the money goes. So, in effect, if they wanted to, they could force a merger to happen, making the members of the Washtenaw County Hotel and Motel Association, and the AAAVCB, very happy… The only people, it would seem, who don’t want this to happen are those of us in Ypsilanti, and it’s not clear to me that we have much power to stop it. Hopefully, I’m wrong about that.
The task force will consist of four Washtenaw County Commissioners; Andy LaBarre (Ann Arbor), Ruth Ann Jamnick (Ypsilanti Township), Ronnie Peterson (Ypsilanti), and Alicia Ping (Saline). If you have an opinion on this, I’d suggest that you write to one or all of them. You’ll find their contact information here…
[The above has been slightly edited. If you would like to read the full text of the original post, and the several dozen comments which followed it, just click here. Also, if you want to go even deeper on the subject, I’d suggest listening to episode 12 of the Saturday Six Pack, during which Debbie Locke-Daniel and I talk at length about his.]