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story.lead_photo.caption The Pine Bluff Convention Center is shown in this undated photo. ( Pine Bluff Commercial / Dale Ellis)

A $30,000 request by the Pine Bluff Convention Center to fund covid-19 upgrades, air conditioning repair, and a pre-inspection boiler tear-down was approved Wednesday by the Advertising and Promotion Commission. That request had been on hold for several months as the A&P Commission warily watched its revenue collections since the beginning of the pandemic.

During a conference call meeting Monday, the A&P Commission Finance Committee endorsed the request and passed it along to the Commission with the recommendation that the request be granted. That decision came on the heels of news that revenues had remained relatively steady and collections had brought in just over $100,000 more than what had been projected.

Commission William Moss, a member of the Finance Committee, along with Commissioner Glen Brown Jr., said it was determined that the additional revenue would not be needed before the end of the year, prompting the committee to give the request its endorsement.

Annual funding for the convention center, set at just over $1 million from commission revenues in the 2021 budget, takes up 67% of the A&P Commission budget, an amount that A&P Commission Director Sheri Storie said is far above the budget allocations of other A&P Commissions in Arkansas cities that have convention centers.

In her report to the commission, Storie compared average budget allocations from commissions around the state in several categories. The average budget allocation for administrative and operations expenses is 40.67% of revenues, she said, while the Pine Bluff A&P Commission expends 12.7%. The Pine Bluff commission's expenditures on sales and marketing, Storie said, come to 7.2% of revenues, well below the average of 23.37%.

"Community commitments (grants), that's where we're comparable to other cities around the state," she said, "the average is 17.4% compared to Pine Bluff at 13.33%.

"This is where we're really out of whack," she continued. "In parks and public facilities, the average is 14.86% compared to Pine Bluff at 67.4%."

Storie said funding at that level makes it impossible for the commission to give the city a competitive edge in tourism, lagging as it does at only a third of the state average in sales and marketing expenditures.

"We will never be able to compete for travel and tourism business if we continue with this type of distribution of our A&P revenue," she said, adding that other cities spend less on facilities funding for a reason. "They understand the importance of developing tourism experiences and keeping those experiences fresh and updated as well as spending a realistic amount of their funds on marketing and promotion."

Storie said with the opening of Saracen Casino, the need to develop and market tourism attractions in the city had gained a fresh urgency, and created the need to find ways to entice people attracted to the casino into the city.

"Now more than ever, we must provide a unique and positive visitor experience outside of the casino," she said. "We've got to give all of these visitors a reason to leave the casino, come into the city and spend money. We don't want the casino to be the only destination in Jefferson County that people come to visit."

Storie said even though funding priorities would need to be evaluated, she was not suggesting that the commission discontinue support for the convention center, but she said to continue funding at over 67% of the commission's annual revenue was not sustainable in light of other needs.

"I was part of the CACC call for [Tuesday's] meeting and it became very clear that they expect their revenue to increase with the added revenue from the casino," she said. "With the information outlined above I think it's clear that any additional revenue needs to be utilized for our sales and marketing and for tourism development."

Storie said the information should be taken into consideration when the time comes to begin preparing the annual budget for 2022, at which time a line item for tourism development will need to be added to the budget.

"We don't want to wait for 2022 because there's not a lot of time for people to get ready for these crucial changes," she said.

The commission scheduled a special meeting for Dec. 11 at 5 p.m. via Zoom video-conference link to review 16 applications for grant funding that were received during the acceptance period for grant funding requests. The meeting will provide applicants the opportunity to present their requests to the commission and for commissioners to ask questions of the applicants regarding their submissions.

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