By Trent Moore
The Cullman Times
With new events like Rock the South and old stalwarts like Oktoberfest drawing thousands to Cullman on an annual basis, local officials have officially launched the area’s first full-fledged tourism department.
After a lengthy search the past several months, the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce has hired Cecelia Smith, originally of Monroe, Ga., as the first-ever tourism director. She started work immediately Tuesday after her hire was approved by the Chamber’s tourism board.
She has most recently worked as a private marketing consultant in Decatur, Ala., but previously served as event’s director for the Northern Pima County Chamber of Commerce in Tucson, Ariz. She has also worked in marketing at the Indianapolis Zoo, as well as customer service with U.S. Airways.
Smith has family in Cullman, and said she was drawn to the position after visiting and spending time on Smith Lake and in downtown.
“Cullman was really the first place I saw when I came to Alabama, staying out on Smith Lake,” she said. “My first experiences were to shop, eat, stay and play in Cullman. This is just such a clean, nice place; and the people of Cullman have been so kind, generous and helpful. I really love the sense of community here.”
The need for a tourism director grew out of a hope by several local civic and governmental leaders to organize all of the area’s scattered tourism initiatives under one roof, with one focus. With new offerings like the massive Rock the South music festival and proposed Bass Fishing Hall of Fame, officials on all sides say the hire could focus on new, untapped potential for growth.
Add in existing attractions like Heritage Park, Ave Maria Grotto, the Cullman Wellness and Aquatic Center, Oktoberfest and downtown — and Chamber director Leah Bolin said Smith should have more than enough to keep her busy.
“When we were going through the interview process, 90 percent of the people who came in and saw Cullman said it’s really one of the best kept secrets — but that’s a good, and bad, thing,” she said. “We don’t want it to be a secret anymore.”
The new department will be funded by approximately 30 percent of the local lodging tax, which was recently made available after the bond to fund construction of Heritage Park was paid off. The remaining 70 percent is going toward the construction of a new Interstate 65 bypass on County Road 222.
The Chamber will also provide some funds — and office space — for the new department.
Bolin and the Chamber board is working now with Smith to figure out the exact operational budget for the tourism department. When asked, Chamber officials declined to release Smith’s salary. The Chamber is an independent organization and is not required to release information such as pay scales and specific budgets.
“I can say we’re going to be very thoughtful with how we spend what we do have,” Bolin said. “We’re going to spend wisely for what is prudent at this moment in time. I also think it’s wise to have tourism as a part of the chamber at this time, so resources and facilities can be shared.”
Before hiring Smith, the position was re-posted twice to open it up to additional applicants. Bolin said she believes that extra time has paid off, and that Smith should be a good match for Cullman.
“The search committee put in several hours trying to find the perfect fit for Cullman and I believe that’s what we’ve done,” she said. “What’s so great about Cecelia is that, even with all the experience she has under her belt, she really wants to keep expanding and keep learning new ways of doing things.”
Former Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourism Association President and CEO Dana Lee Jennings, who was recently hired by the Cullman chamber to serve as a consultant, said she believes Cullman holds quite a bit of untapped potential.
“There’s never been a doubt in my mind that if the right people are put in place, with the right plan, tourism could flourish here,” she said. “While there have been many attempts with good people in the past, one cannot spent 85 percent of their time on Chamber business, and 15 percent on tourism. Tourism can be, and is, a money generator. Getting people to come, spend and stay.”
Cullman city council member Clint Hollingsworth, who represents the city’s tourism interests, said he believes Smith’s hiring is a step in the right direction.
“I think she’ll do a great job, coming form some bigger markets, she has experience in several different areas and that could be a real asset,” he said. “With where we are right now, with the interchange in the works, the Bass Hall of Fame on the horizon and the Smith Lake dynamic, there’s a lot going on. I think she’ll be able to bring more tourism dollars and people into our area, and help us get to that next level of bringing people in who may not have heard of Cullman, or experienced what we have to offer. This will give us someone to help work with the hotels, park and rec. and the businesses to bring everyone to the table to do things in the best way possible.”
* Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.