By Trent Moore and David Palmer
The Cullman Times
The Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce lost several members Thursday, when every hotel member abruptly resigned from the local business organization. A letter signed by the 10-member Cullman Hospitality Association said they have not been “taken seriously” as members of the Chamber and the tourism committee and wish to be removed from the member list immediately.
In a copy of the letter obtained by The Times, representatives from the local Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, Economy Inn, Comfort Suites, America’s Best Value Inn, EconoLodge, Best Western, Quality Inn, Sleep Inn and Days Inn complained that the Chamber fails to recognize them as an industry.
One major sticking point is the countywide lodging tax, a portion of which will soon be used to pay for a new Interstate 65 interchange on County Road 222. The funds had previously been used for debt service on Heritage Park, and a portion also goes to the Chamber.
Holiday Inn manager Michelle Choisser said she and her peers would like more input in how the lodging tax is used to promote tourism.
“We’d like to discuss that with the Chamber board and have an open communication about that,” she said. “But we haven’t been able to get that done. We’ve tried a lot of different angles to have our voices heard, but we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. We have to have a return on our investment [in the Chamber] and we don’t feel like we’re getting it.”
The hotel managers said they believe Chamber meetings are more focused on socializing, as opposed to making plans for tourism and economic growth.
“The hotel industry is not represented well in the Chamber,” the letter states. “The tourism committee currently is a nice place for interested parties to come together to discuss various items and to socialize, however nothing seems to come out of the meetings ... The items that are discussed at the meetings really seem to have no bearing on important decisions that are made concerning our industry.”
The hospitality association is also upset about a proposed redesign of the Chamber website, saying they feel as if they were left out of the process.
“This comes after years of requests made by the hotels for a website update. This is very disappointing, as it shows us our input is not important,” the letter states. “We have tried time and again to make our voices heard, with no success.”
Newly appointed Chamber President Leah Bolin said she was disappointed with the hoteliers’ decision and hopes the two sides can eventually reach a resolution.
“I’m very disappointed in the decision made by some of our hotel members. Not only has the Chamber been operating in a transient state for nearly eight months, but we only filled the permanent leadership position 23 days ago,” she said. “As interim director I was aware of the hotels’ grievances but not in a position to make any permanent changes. I do believe that a few of their grievances are warranted. Several, however, are misguided.”
Bolin said she had been in contact with the Hospitality Association in recent weeks in an effort to defuse the situation, to no avail.
“I personally spoke with two of the hotel representatives recently, letting them know I’d like for us to begin meeting quarterly or monthly for a report on all our area hotels,” she said. “They gave me the impression this was a step in the right direction and seemed happy to see the Chamber taking positive action.”
Looking toward the long-term, Bolin said it is imperative for both sides to have some type of working relationship as the organization attempts to ramp up its tourism efforts.
“As the organization responsible for tourism, I feel it is vitally important we be able to communicate with our hotels about events coming to our area,” she said. “We are working diligently on a new approach to promoting our area around the state and region. It is not beneficial to any of us to be divisive. I have written a letter to the Hospitality Association in hopes we can come together to rectify this situation.”
Rickey Kreps, immediate past-chairman of the Chamber, said he hopes a compromise can be reached between the two sides. Kreps noted the tourism opportunities of the proposed Bass Hall of Fame on Co. Rd. 222 as one project that could be beneficial for all parties if they work together.
“We will have to sit down and talk about this,” he said. “I think if the (County Road) 222 interchange is built and the Bass Hall of Fame is built, those will create some good tourism opportunities in Cullman County.”
A copy of the resignation letter was also forwarded to Cullman city hall, and Mayor Max Townson said he was sad to hear of the split. Townson noted the Co. Rd. 222 interchange could be a huge economic boon for the area, as well as the city’s continued efforts in parks and recreation. The current administration wants to make a hard push in the coming years to promote the area and is working with the Chamber to accomplish that goal.
“I hate that they feel that way and I wish they would reconsider,” Townson said. “The exchange at 222 will help tourism. If we get the Bass Hall of Fame, it will also build more tourism. It would be years before any hotels would actually build in that area, but if we bring in new businesses and continue to grow our parks and recreation program, that will bring more people here to stay in the hotels. I certainly wish they would reconsider. If I could have an opportunity to stand before them and discuss what we're doing for tourism, I would gladly do so.”
Charles NeSmith, chairman of the chamber of commerce, said every effort will be made to talk to the hotel managers and bring them back into the organization.
“I think this has been brewing a long time. It’s unfortunate, but I’m confident it can be resolved,” NeSmith said. “Before I became the chair I identified that tourism and membership were two areas we needed to focus on. But out of our control was the need that came up to hire a new president and the talks that started on the CR 222 interchange. We felt like we needed to do what was best for the entire county, but at the same time we set aside money for tourism.”
The chamber will begin receiving money from the lodging tax in the next month. NeSmith said about $50,000 of the money will go toward tourism, along with other dollars that come into the chamber for the same purpose.
“After Leah was hired we also had an executive board meeting to begin looking closely at restructuring our efforts concerning tourism,” NeSmith said. “One effort will be to restructure the tourism committee and make sure that it is representative of those who have the highest stake in tourism. We will be looking to those members for direction on how we move forward, and the hotels are definitely key players in that.”
NeSmith also said part of the internal reorganization is to identify activities that take away from tourism promotion and serving membership.
“If there are things we do that don’t produce good results, or that take away from what our focus needs to be, we want to eliminate those,” NeSmith said. “We understand that the greater the occupancy rate, the better for all of us. I’m confident this can be resolved; if not immediately, then it will be chamber’s job to win them back.”
Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.
David Palmer may be contacted at email@example.com or 256-734-2131, ext. 213.