10% Marketing Fund

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Two proposals were recently brought before the Selectboard: first, to allocate 10% of the rooms and meals tax to the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance and the Brattleboro Chamber of Commerce for promotion of Brattleboro; and second, to provide 2% of the rooms and meals tax to fund art in Brattleboro.

I support both ideas in general terms and in theory, but I oppose both proposals as they currently stand. I’m going to focus on the DBA/Chamber proposal here.

Level of detail

I think marketing the town is important and could pay huge returns. However, I found the proposal to be severely lacking in specifics. I’m not suggesting that the Selectboard have input into individual marketing items, or that they should be consulted on marketing questions. Marketing experts should make those decisions. I’m not interested in micromanagement. However, the plan should exist in detail before the Selectboard approves it.

Consider the discussion around the construction of a carport for the new police station at a recent Selectboard meeting. Selectboard members were asking engineering questions about the consequences of ice buildup on an exterior wall. That was the level of detail of that discussion. In contrast, the discussion around the 10% marketing proposal seemed restricted to general enthusiasm for the concept and faith in the organizations involved. To me, that doesn’t meet the standard of detail I’d expect.

How to measure success?

The biggest red flag for me is the lack of defined criteria for success. Simply put, next year, how will we know if we want to continue to fund the program? Both sides seem to agree that it’s very hard to attribute a cause for the recent overperformance of the rooms and meals tax versus its projections in the budget. That means that the 2019 revenue from the rooms and meals tax will have very little use as a way to measure the success of the 2019 promotional campaign. Absent that, what other metrics are there? The only alternatives I heard from the proposal’s advocates were social media analytics and merchant surveys. To me, this falls well short of quantifiable measures.

This is a real problem with the proposal. If we can’t make a clear argument that the program has succeeded or failed, how do we know whether we’re spending this money well?

Public opinion

I’m also impressed by the breadth and depth of public concern over the idea. Many people spoke up at Selectboard meetings with concerns on the issue, some of which I’ve covered here, some of which I haven’t. Other concerns included: the wisdom of spending resources on promotion rather than addressing major problems in town; the lack of explicit diversity in the decision-making process; the possible over-representation of merchants versus the town as a whole; that many interests in the town had no idea that this funding option was available in the first place and so lost an opportunity to advocate for their interests.

I’m also disappointed that the Selectboard didn’t choose to take the middle ground offered by David Schoales’s motion to send the item to town meeting without adding it as a line item to the budget. I was a little disappointed in how forcefully Dick DeGray rejected the idea of sending it to town meeting in that form, where “everyone’s gonna say, I want a piece, I want a piece, I want a piece.” That desire, for more people to have a say in how promotion of the town is done, and for more people to be at the table for those decisions, was a common refrain among members of the public who spoke about the proposal at that meeting.

Oscar Heller for Brattleboro Selectboard 2019