This week, the City of Spring Hill is considering a $10,000 investment in developing its local tourism industry via a chamber of commerce initiative.
The Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted to allocate the funds to the Spring Hill Chamber of Commerce, which recently relocated to Main Street. The chamber’s new location costs money that its previous location did not, which could leave it unable to support the tourism initiative it aims to execute.
The new, more prominent location has already increased the chamber’s in-traffic, which bolsters its claim that it should establish a welcome center to show visitors what the city has to offer. The center would provide information about local attractions through a variety of mediums. The marketing plan that would capitalize on such a center also costs money to develop and execute.
BOMA allocated $10,000 in January from a previous budget amendment to nothing in particular, and there were deliberations on whether to contribute the funds to the chamber in response to the organization’s letter of request submitted in December. Upon hearing from the chamber about why this would be a wise decision, Aldermen Matt Fitterer and Hazel Nieves requested more concrete evidence that spending the money would be worthwhile.
“I right now just hear a lot of ideals and not a lot of real actionable items,” Fitterer said. “How do we know these other municipalities and what they’re funding is making a difference in [tourism growth]? […] Why do we need an outside entity to do that, not just the city?”
Aldermen John Canepari, Jason Cox, Trent Linville, Brent Murray and William Pomeroy all disagreed with classifying the chamber as an “outside entity” and advocated for the city and its partner organizations to move forward in sync toward an objective that ideally would serve all local businesses and the city alike. They also acknowledged the chamber performing tasks arguably beyond the scope of its responsibilities on behalf of the city.
“I know from personal experience that there are phone calls that are made to and received by the chamber that should be coming to the city that aren’t coming to the city because we don’t have anybody to answer that phone,” Canepari said.
In May 2021, Gov. Bill Lee ratified a bill to amend statewide regulations on hotel taxes, restricting municipalities’ hotel taxes to no more than 4 percent. It also required proceeds thereof to be allocated toward tourism. Spring Hill pivoted to compliance with this regulation at the beginning of the year.
“Tourism and hospitality’s actually the state’s second largest industry; it drives over $23.2 billion pre-pandemic,” said Rebecca Melton, executive director for the Spring Hill Chamber of Commerce. “Obviously, they suffered losses during the pandemic, but actually, Tennessee’s tourism industry outperformed the industry-average loss by over 10 percent.”
When COVID-19 first reached the U.S., the tourism industry was up statewide about 17,000 jobs from the previous year, not counting transportation jobs related to couriering people to and from airports and hotels, which is part of the trade, transportation and utilities supersector — the fastest-growing segment of the service industry, which was up 46,500 jobs from Dec. 2018 to Dec. 2019. Service is a significant companion industry to tourism that often shares its employment trends.
Williamson County was the sixth biggest spender on tourism, and Maury County is ranked among the fastest growing counties by tourism expenditures at 21 out of the 95 counties in the state. The two counties collectively saw over $1 billion in tourism dollars spent in 2021, and according to Melton, this led Maury County taxpayers to save on average about $191 per household and enabled Williamson County taxpayers to save about $874 per household.
Melton explained that Maury County currently allocates occupancy tax revenue toward all things Rippavilla but that she and the chamber believe more can be done.
“We cannot grow the tourism base by putting all of those dollars in one bucket,” Melton said.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1996, Rippavilla is an antebellum plantation now preserved as a museum with the historic house of Nathaniel Cheairs. The former slave-kept grounds partnered with Airbnb back in 2018 to offer guided tours of the plantation and surrounding Civil War battle sites.
Owning the property since 2017, the City of Spring Hill last April terminated its contract with Rippavilla Inc. — incorporated to manage the grounds of the historic site — and then deliberated the following month over whether or not to sue Rippavilla Inc. Since then, the Battle of Franklin Trust has taken over the management of the attraction despite initial concerns from residents.
“I have been on this board while we went through — I’ll just say — a nightmare dealing with the previous management for Rippavilla and seeing all the different things that happened there, the money that was wasted there, taxpayer money wasted,” said Nieves who characterized the chamber’s plan as putting the cart before the horse. “I’m bringing that up because Spring Hill has not invested in the past the properties, the events, the opportunities for tourism.”
Melton told the Board of Mayor and Aldermen Monday that the bulk of visitors in the city’s hotels are coming on business or to visit family in the area.
The chamber’s focus is on getting them to spend more money in the city during their stay and enticing them to return. They are also focusing on internal data that tells them visitors are checking out Spring Hill as a prospective residence for their own households. Other visitors are reportedly staying first in Nashville and then extending their stays in areas around Nashville like Spring Hill.
Melton also cited temporary workers, namely at General Motors. As of November, GM aimed to hire as many as 120 temporary workers, and earlier in the year, the corporation was reportedly exploring the notion of setting up a battery plant; logistically, there was reason to consider proximity to its existing Spring Hill facility.