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Attraction owners tout hotel/motel tax’s worth

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Visitors to Kelsay Farms who want to visit more local attractions when they come to the farm near Whiteland often don’t know what else there is to see in Johnson County.

Farm tourism director Amy Kelsay gives them lists of some local staples, such as the Mallow Run Winery or The Apple Works. But she believes the county needs a tourism website she can direct visitors to, since she isn’t sure she knows all the the county has to offer.

More than 15 local business owners and residents spoke at the county council meeting Monday in support of an innkeeper’s tax that would fund a county tourism board. The board would be good for the community and local businesses because it would help bring more visitors and potential customers, they said.

The 5 percent tax would raise an estimated $650,000 each year to be spent on a new tourism commission, which would market the county to visitors.

Sixty percent of the commission’s budget would be spent on marketing, including promoting county events, businesses and attractions through brochures and a tourism website. The rest would pay employee salaries, operating costs and grants programs.

If the tax is approved, people who stay in local hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfasts would pay an added 5 percent on their bill. For example, if the bill is $100, the visitor would pay $105. The county council will decide whether to approve the tax next month. If approved, the money collected from the tax would be saved for one year before the county commissioners and Greenwood mayor would appoint members to the tourism bureau.

The council has considered the tax twice in the past four years but has not approved it. The council decided to put off the vote on the tax until January so new council members, who were not on the council when the issue last was discussed in 2009, would have a chance to hear opinions from residents, ask questions and learn about the tax.

Kelsay supports the tax and creation of a tourism commission because it would enable Johnson County businesses to promote themselves together. Local businesses have individual websites, and visitors have to find each one on their own. But on a central tourism site, someone looking to visit the farm, which has a corn maze, hayrides and other activities, could see a local restaurant they’d like to try as well.

“The goal would be not just to bring more people here but to make sure they have the best experience possible, so they want to come back,” she said. “I’d love to see an effort that promotes what makes us unique as a county.”

All other central Indiana counties have tourism websites that list local activities and businesses, Tilson HR owner and Aspire Johnson County co-chairman Brent Tilson said. If people are looking for a place to stay, they are more likely to choose those counties because Johnson County does not have a way of showing people what it has to offer, he said.

“As a county, we’re merely stepping into the future     with this tax),” he said. “This is a vehicle to drive an end goal, and that end goal is to make Johnson County a better place.”

Hotels will charge the tax, and visitors will see their bills for stays in local lodging increase, but people will not choose to stay elsewhere because of the tax, Franklin Heritage director and Artcraft Theatre owner Rob Shilts said.

When he has stayed in other counties, an innkeeper’s tax has not deterred him from choosing one county or another. Travelers will stay where they need to stay, regardless of a tax, he said.

When a concert comes to his theater, the performers stay in a local inn. If a tourism board were to bring in more business, that could lead to more events and more performers who need rooms, Shilts said.

The tax would benefit the county because a tourism board would bring more visitors, revenue and name recognition to the county, all without charging anything to Johnson County residents, resident Peggy Thompson-Rutledge said.

“This is one of the best taxes for the county because it doesn’t dip into my pocket,” she said.

Fees also could be charged to businesses if they want to be included in special promotional materials the tourism board would produce, such as calendars or publications, county council member Anita Knowles said.

But charging a tax to people who are not represented locally is unfair, council member Jim Eckart said.

If local businesses feel that a central promotional website is so important, they could work together on a website without funding from a new tax or the involvement of the county, he said.

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