JASPER — Nobody goes to Jasper, anymore. It is too crowded.
That is a take on a quote by Hall of Fame baseball player, manager and coach Yogi Berra. He might have said something like that after attending the public hearing and special council meeting at Jasper City Hall Tuesday night, May 4.
The city council wanted public input into an idea to promote and advertise the city through a special commission. It would be funded by a penny tax on prepared food sold in the city limits.
The idea was put forth by the council's planning committee as a way of addressing the city's recently adopted long range strategic plan that addresses economic development. Tourism is Jasper's leading industry.
Last March, a meeting was held to discuss planning and tourism. About a dozen city officials and Jasper business leaders gathered at City Hall to discuss the possible passage of a tax on the sale of prepared food.
Also attending the meeting was Matt Bell, executive director of the Harrison Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). He explained how the CVB is funded through a voter-approved sales taxes on hotel/motel rooms and prepared food in Harrison. Most of that revenue is used to promote the city, to recruit more conventions to the city and fund festivals to draw visitors.
In Harrison, a 1% tax is collected on prepared food and non-alcoholic beverages (referred to as the "Hamburger" tax) sold by restaurants, cafes, cafeterias, delis, drive-in restaurants, carry-out restaurants, convenience stores, grocery stores delis, festivals and all other establishments in Harrison engaged in the selling of prepared food and beverages for on or off premises consumption.
Also, there is a 3% tax on the portion of the gross receipts or gross proceeds received from the renting, leasing or otherwise furnishing of hotel, motel, or short-term condominium rental accommodations for sleeping, meeting, or party room facilities for profit in Harrison. But not included is the rental or lease of such accommodations for periods of 30 days or more.
A City Advertising & Tourism Promotion Commission (CATPC) sets forth guidelines for any expenditure of the funds collected, Bell explained. Payment of the tax is made directly to his office and any expenditure must be approved by the commission that functions autonomously.
Funds could be expended on whatever the commission deems tourism-worthy, Bell said.
How Jasper sets up its commission would be established in an ordinance.
Jasper Mayor Jan Larson said tourism is the heart of Jasper's economy. However, the municipal government does not have funds to legally promote or fund special events that would bring more visitors to the town and the surrounding area. A hamburger tax would make that possible.
Larson said the state already collects a 2% tax on nightly bed rentals for tourism promotion, and city officials do not want to add on another tax on those businesses.
It was noted that the sales tax in Jasper is 9.5%. The tax would rise above 10%. However, it was argued, residents would be the beneficiary.
City council has the authority to impose by ordinance a hamburger tax up to 3% without holding an election. City council members Todd Parker and Lindsey Graham said 1% would be all that the council would consider, if the businesses support it.
That was pretty much how things have stood since that meeting and the public hearing Tuesday was for the full council to get a consensus of what the community wishes it to do.
However, only a handful of people turned out Tuesday with two individuals presenting two opposing views of the proposal.
Bubba Loyd, of Bubba's Buffalo River Store and Ernie Yeager, of the Junction Quick Stop, didn't oppose the proposal outright, though Yeager questioned the need.
Notably absent from the meeting were representatives from the Ozark Cafe. Dennis and Melinda Smith, owners of Sharon K's cafe, sent a letter, passed on to the council by Yeager, stating their objection to the tax. The owners of the Blue Mountain Cafe and Bakery, Scott and Frances Zemlik, recently announced through social media that the business is closing.
Yeager said local residents would not be in favor of another tax and the town already benefits from free advertising via social media. He said the town is over crowded with visitors on weekends.
Loyd countered that the tax increase wouldn't be noticed, especially by visitors. City residents would benefit from the increase in business and in the overall tax revenues the city would receive. The city could then address parking, continued development of the city park and meet other needs.
No one has been able to provide the city with an estimate of how much money the tax would raise. Best guesses are anywhere from $3,000 to $20,000 annually.
Loyd admitted his business does not sell prepared food, but he said someday it might.
Yeager asked if the commission could be formed without a tax.
Parker said he wasn't interested in the tax as much as he was in forming the commission, but it would need to be funded.
Council member Michael Thomas said neither the tax nor the commission are necessary, but the benefits of having both are great. Costs have to be passed on and in this plan the costs are met with a tax. He said he is at odds with himself over the best way to do it. He said he does not want to impose a tax. He would rather the people vote and agree that it is a good idea. "It's not an easy decision."
Larson noted a highway study showed an average of about 7,000 vehicles cross the Highway 7 bridge spanning the Little Buffalo River every day. She would like to see more of them stop rather than just pass through the downtown business district.
Larson said she recognizes the town needs more parking, but more importantly, visitors need more things to do here other than eat. She would like people to stay in the city and spend money while they are here. If a restaurant is crowded people drive on to Harrison rather than wait, she said. If they have something else to do in the meantime maybe they will stay.
Larson pointed out that the city needs a way to market itself and the city doesn't have the funds or expertise.
"The sky is the limit," she said on what a commission could accomplish; depending on what its members "dream up." But the city can't fund concerts or other events, not without a plan. "If we don't try we won't know," she said.
Closing the hearing just after 7 p.m. the council opened its special meeting. Hardly anyone remained to hear what the council decided to do.
Graham opened the discussion saying she liked the idea of forming the commission without the tax. The commission would first be allowed to just "brainstorm," come up with ideas and form an agenda on what it would like to do spending the hamburger tax. She added she doesn't like it when government imposes taxes and "takes my money."
Council member Les Murphy noted the development of the former Dogpatch USA property by Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris. No formal announcement has been made about the details of that project. Murphy said Jasper has to be prepared to meet the growth that will follow.
He said he believes the tax should be left up to an election. If it were held today it would be voted down, he said. So, more information and education about the plan has to be provided.
Parker said he, too, is pulled apart in making a decision. He said he was elected to do what is best for the city. A lot of time and effort went into creating the city's strategic plan for economic development. It sets out what the city wants to do to grow tourism and this model is a way to do that. "It's something we have to do," he said, but it wasn't something he felt comfortable doing without the approval of his constituents.
Thomas asked when the next election will be held. The annual school election is this month, but the next general election won't be for two years.
After more discussion a motion was made, seconded and passed unanimously. It calls for an ordinance to be written that allows the creation of a city advertising and promotion commission and calling for a referendum on a 1 cent hamburger tax be placed on the ballot of the next available election.
Berra might observe that the council members came to a fork in the road and they took it.