JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Johnson City commissioners approved a proposal Thursday to make the Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) a standalone organization.
The CVB and Johnson City Chamber of Commerce will separate after more than three decades of CVB being an arm of the Chamber as a result of the move.
The proposal, recommended by city staff, passed 4-0 with Commissioner Larry Calhoun abstaining. Calhoun previously served as Chamber chair and he has family members currently on the Chamber’s executive committee.
“In the direction that it’s going it needs to have it’s independence but in some way benefit from some consolidation and synergies that could help it be successful,” Calhoun said before the rest of the Commission voted.
The CVB has been an arm of the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce since its formation more than 30 years ago, though it has its own advisory council and foundation. The groups share office space and some personnel positions, and the CVB pays the Chamber for its share.
Tasked with marketing Johnson City as an attractive destination to visit and bringing visitors and their spending to the area, the CVB is funded by a 2.5 percent portion of the city’s 7 percent lodging tax.
“It’s opportunity sometimes that we leave on the table,” said Mayor Jenny Brock. “We think we are who we are- but we have all these amazing entities in this area that is such an attraction for the public from all over the country.”
That lodging tax typically brought in slightly less than $700,000 annually in recent years. The remainder of those funds, well over $1,000,000, go into city coffers to support other municipal spending.
The Chamber is funded through private donations.
Early this year a consultant recommended the CVB consider separating from the Chamber, among a number of other findings following a strategic planning process.
“We’re at a precipice for a major growth period for major tourism in our region and Johnson City could be the leading entity for that,” said CVB Council chair, Andy Marquart.
City commissioners asked the CVB leaders a couple of months ago to draft a proposal about their preferred future direction. The submitted business proposal requested approval to incorporate as its own 501(c)6 entity and find a location to house both staff offices and a visitors center.
The CVB’s council voted almost unanimously to pursue this option. The only vote for a different option came from Dianna Cantler, who heads the Johnson City Development Authority and is married to Chamber CEO Bob Cantler.
The proposal called for use of $75,000 of the CVB’s own reserve funds to jump start the move, and had a detailed budget showing how the organization would move forward alone.
Though not originally solicited, the Chamber also submitted a proposal. This one requested the city approve either of two “hybrid options.” One would change very little from the status quo, while the other would create an independent CVB that still shared “certain staff, expenses and space.”
The city staff’s recommendation wasn’t sent to commissioners or shared with CVB and Chamber leaders until mid-day Thursday. Before the commission had voted, the Chamber’s board chair, Jennifer Keller, emailed officers about the proposal and city recommendation.
News Channel 11 obtained a copy of the email, which included the following:
“We are certainly disappointed in this recommendation, although it is not entirely surprising given the trajectory many CVB’s have been on to become independent across the country. We remain committed to a vibrant Chamber and to executing the new, exciting strategic plan that you have been a part of creating and that will be finalized in the days to come.”
The CVB and Chamber’s relationship has endured some strain since late 2019. CVB leaders asked for a number of months to receive financials similar to what they’d always received when Gary Mabrey was Chamber CEO.
CVB leaders were particularly concerned about how much money the Chamber had borrowed from CVB funds.
“Everything the Chamber had done had gone through workshops with the city so we had conversations about that but it was just part of that process of the strategic plan,” Cantler said in regards to the funding issue.
When details hadn’t been produced in the spring and commissioners were aware, the city drafted a Memorandum of Understanding that would have clarified the financial relationship between the publicly funded CVB and the privately funded Chamber.
“This decision was a culmination of a year-long strategic plan and any other issues were put to the side and actually resolved along this process,” Marquart said.
Cantler thinks the timing for a split is right as the Chamber focuses on helping businesses survive the pandemic.
“It’s not going to have as major of an impact in this coming year as it would have in maybe previous times,” Cantler said.
“Run like you’re being chased because three months might be the difference for some of these businesses that are hanging by a thread,” said Vice-Mayor Joe Wise to both organizations.
The next few months will consist of the CVB restructuring and needing to find a location for it’s offices and a visitor’s center.