City continues to reap economic benefits of iconic movie

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Tourist Commission continues battle for back tax revenue

By Carolyn Roy, carolyn@natchitochestimes.com

D&D Construction

“Steel Magnolias” is over 30 years old but its economic impact is still being counted in Natchitoches. At the meeting of the Natchitoches Parish Tourist Commission Tuesday, Marketing and Communications Director Kelli West reported on the success of the “Blush and Bashful” weekend in November that showed the movie is still relevant.

Five hotels and seven bed and breakfast inns were sold out, 450 people attended the screening of the movie at Parkway Cinema, 200 heard author Robert Harling speak at the La. Sports Hall of Fame, 300 tickets to the wedding reception were sold as were 150 tickets to the Sunday brunch. A Front Street shop sold 100 T-shirts marking the 30th anniversary of the movie.

Tours by Barbara conducted five guided tours with a total of more than 200 people. West and Commission Executive Director Arlene Gould said there have been numerous requests to conduct the event this year but it was too big an effort for the commission to undertake again. Their hope is that another entity, whether for profit or nonprofit, will take over the event with the tourist commission agreeing to market it. Gould said the showing at the cinema was a one-time thing and suggested it could be shown on the riverbank at the amphitheater. She said that visitors from 12 states were in town for the weekend.

West was to leave for New York City Wednesday where she will attend the New York Times Travel Show attended by 350 media journalists. She will be on a panel session on cultural destinations which is an emerging trend in travel. Group and Tourism Sales Manager Anne Cummins told the board that there were 31 group tours in December representing an economic impact of $527,000. In 2019, there were 275 groups with 43,805 people and an economic impact of $6.9 million. The tourism and welcome center prepared 3,600 welcome packets for those groups.

An emerging trend appears to be recreational vehicle tours. The welcome center is expecting 350 people in RVs to visit in March. They will stay at the campground at Grand Ecore. Gould said that the welcome center had 60 international visitors sign the guest book in 2019 with 23 percent coming from France.

The State is expecting China and Australia to be emerging travel markets. Gould reported that the hotel/motel occupancy tax generated $42,609 for the commission in December representing collections in November. A continuing problem with the Natchitoches Tax Commission continues to frustrate the members of the tourist commission.

Gould reported that District Attorney Billy Joe Harrington requested a follow-up opinion from the La. Attorney General regarding its first opinion that said the commission “should” attempt to collect back taxes from Chateau St. Denis. The issue is that the hotel collected a $10 service fee on its room charges for several months but did not pay taxes on that fee, part of which should have gone to the tourist commission, City and Parish. After several months, the hotel began paying the sales and hotel/motel occupancy tax on that fee but the tourist commission has sought to collect what it refers to as back taxes through Tax Commissioner Jerry McWherter and the Natchitoches Tax Commission.

McWherter has told the Natchitoches Times he had “no comment” on the matter.

Adding to the frustration of the tourist commission is another problem with McWherter. The commission wants to collect the hotel/motel tax from the 28 Air B&Bs in Natchitoches. They have asked McWherter to agree to have the national association collect the taxes and remit them to the commission. At least eight other parishes are receiving taxes through this method. So far, McWherter has not signed the agreement but instead has said he must audit the Air B&Bs which will take until November. Gould said some of the Air B&B owners are anxious to pay and the commissioners believe a significant amount is uncollected. Also frustrating is that the commission has sent the agreements to the City and Parish Government so they can get their share of the taxes but have had no response.

Gould said the commission will keep the issues on the agenda and await a reply to Harrington’s letter to the attorney general. While the 2019 economic impact report has not been finalized, the 2018 report showed that there was $97 million in tourism spending with $12.6 million generated in State and local taxes. Tourism supported 1,370 jobs with $36 million on payroll. The 2018 hotel/motel occupancy tax generated $405,000, a 12.5 percent increase over 2017. The welcome center added 3,000 to its Facebook fan base.

It placed ads in publications such as Southern Living, AAA Southern Traveler, Southern Lady, Louisiana Cookin’, Small Market Meetings, Convention South Magazine, Where to Retire, USA Today and Horizon Magazine.