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RECAP: TBID & Council Get an Earful at October 30 Workshop
Multiple Tourism Business Improvement District challenges daylighted during raucous 2-hour meeting.
Correction: Under “Final Comments” the email version of the article misquoted TBID Chair Rakesh Mehta as saying “the $20,000 that was allocated for events was allocated in July of this year.” The actual amount Mehta claimed as being allocated was $200,000 (see footnote below).
Side by side Monday night, October 30, 2023, in an unusual joint session, both the TBID (Tourism Business Improvement District) and City Council took heat from constituents at a TBID strategic planning workshop.
At the sometimes-raucous meeting, residents and tourism-dependent business owners voiced multiple complaints about the TBID.
Perceived TBID shortcomings repeatedly mentioned include lack of transparency, the absence of a coherent marketing plan for the City, and being woefully behind the times for doing far too little marketing via social media.
TBID Chair Rakesh Mehta responded by defending the TBID's recent actions, pleading with constituents to attend future TBID meetings and get involved going forward. Other TBID members said they were listening intently to the community's concerns.
Speakers during public comment were allotted the usual 3 minutes. But in an extraordinary departure from most City meetings and workshops, residents responding to questions posed during the workshop were allowed just 60 seconds per comment. This innovation yielded grumbling from the crowd as commenter after commenter was cut off mid-sentence. Said Susan Peplow, "You guys are doing a disservice paying for a moderator and only giving us one minute to speak."
Opening Remarks and Comments
After prepared opening remarks by Mayor McArthur Wright, introductory comments kicked off.
Jane Rodgers, new Superintendent of JTNP, introduced herself and offered to attend a future Council meeting to give a "State of the Park" presentation. Pamela La Fosse spoke in favor of the peacocks in her neighborhood. Sarah Beck spoke on what she believes is the strong connection between a vibrant local tourism economy and higher local real estate values. She also suggested that the City make STR permits transferable.
Evan Cuellar wondered whether the City could host large festivals along the lines of Coachella and suggested improving local public transportation as a way to boost tourism.
Joshua Tree resident T Hammidi applauded the City for hosting Gay Pride last year, saying that they'd worked closely with the TBID to put on the event, and expressed hope that their application to put on the second Gay Pride event in June 2024 would be approved. Gretchen Grunt expressed gratitude for the City's flourishing she'd witnessed over the last 20 years.
The meeting was moderated by Mayor Wright, but he went on to introduce two co-moderators—Beven Bunch, CEO, and Sara Backstead, VP of Brand Development and Partnerships, from New Deal Hospitality, a third-party firm that assists the TBID. This contract arrangement in itself was not without controversy, with hotelier Veno Nathraj commenting by letter that New Deal is "a waste of taxpayers' money."
The bulk of the meeting then consisted of public comment on six slated topics: TBID structure and objectives, TBID budget, tourism areas of focus, marketing strategy, success metrics, and events.
For TBID structure, comments focused on turning over and expanding the TBID board. Desert Trumpet editor and writer Cindy Bernard said "it's time for new blood," and suggested expanding the current five-member board to seven by adding two at-large members to achieve TBID representation for the City's restaurants and retail businesses.
Councilmember Joel Klink responded that he likewise favors a fresh TBID board as well, but turnover would have to wait as the existing terms have a year to go.
Councilmember Daniel Mintz weighed in saying that last time there was a TBID board vacancy, following a resignation, only one or two people stepped forward to apply, and he hoped next time would be different.
On TBID budget, Sara Beckstead advised that the current budget allocation is $200,000 for event sponsorship, $45,000 for digital marketing, $36,000 for broadcast media and $16,000 for video production. She posed the question, are these figures appropriate given TBID's priorities?
In comments on this item, Bernard pointed out that she'd brought to light a significant error in last year's TBID budget, so she questioned whether the board was paying sufficient attention, and opined that the board didn't realize that events cost substantial sums to produce.
Michael Usher, president of local business owners' group, the DBA (Downtown Business Association), which runs the Rediscover 29 website, said the DBA wants to work with the TBID and City to do monthly festival-style events downtown. The budget they're proposing is $12,000 to $15,000 per month, with the goal of eventually doing bi-monthly events downtown. Usher said the TBID would likely need to hire an additional full-time staff member to support this kind of ongoing joint project.
Susan Peplow suggested the TBID arrange classes to teach local businesses how to manage their social media marketing and said many cities successfully leverage printed promotional fliers.
TBID Chair Rakesh Mehta chimed in, reminding everyone, "Keep in mind that we were in COVID until 2021. We had no idea what events we could do and the budget was created in September of the year prior. Any time an event was brought to the TBID's attention and requested monetary support, we adjusted our budget to incorporate that.” He added somewhat ruefully that he wished participation at prior TBID meetings, "where suggestions had been requested," had been anything like the crowd of 50 residents now assembled.
Another TBID board member said in their recent budget the TBID proposed money to hire an additional staff member, but the Council had denied the request.
Tourism Areas of Focus
Next topic up was the various tourism areas of focus. Deanna Alvarez talked up the value and effectiveness of the Twentynine Palms Visitor Center, which is run by the TBID.
Susan Peplow noted the opportunities for the City provided by the expansion of the Joshua Tree National Park West Gate; Cindy Bernard criticized the haphazard process the TBID uses to grant money; Michael Usher opined that the TBID areas of focus weren't sufficiently specific to the City; Sarah Beck suggested the TBID create a process for joint marketing between STR hosts and the TBID by hosts sharing guest email addresses; and AJ Raman, president of Greens Group, which operates the local Fairfield Inn, said his firm has marketing expertise and would be keenly interested in a seat on the TBID board.
On the marketing strategy topic, Sarah Beck suggested the TBID send a weekly local event email; a Greens Group representative suggested tie-ins with local sports marketing; another resident suggested more retreats and B2B marketing; and Susan Peplow suggested outsourcing social media marketing to a social media expert.
Mintz then weighed in, agreeing especially with the sports marketing angle, and suggested the City could better market and leverage its many sports fields.
Klink agreed strongly with the monthly concert idea, and Wright said "please don't forget our Christian community, because we like concerts too."
TBID Chair Mehta reiterated that the TBID revenues (and thus local lodging revenues) had continued to increase each year, pointed to TBID marketing efforts like a billboard along Interstate 10 and ads displayed in Southern California airports, and emphasized his support for the work of Breanne Dusastre, Director of Marketing for Visit 29 Palms, but said Breanne desperately needs more help.
On success metrics, Sara Beckstead advised that the current metrics include TBID revenue, lead generation and online engagement reach. AJ Raman commented that $40,000 for digital marketing sounded insufficient but he'd love to see details. Sarah Beck suggested the new site have first-rate images to draw potential visitors in. Cindy Bernard pointed to the lack of any cause-and-effect proof or professionally done survey research to show that the increasing TBID revenues each year were truly a result of TBID marketing efforts.
Breanne Dusastre said Visit 29 Palms expects to launch the new website, featuring a strong emphasis on visual storytelling, in mid-December. She also informed everyone that the TBID provided key website metrics each October in the TBID annual report.
Stephen Przybylowski, owner of White Label Vinyl and Vice President of Downtown Business Owners of Twentynine Palms, shouted from the back asking whether there was currently any social media marketing being done, but Mayor Wright advised him to attend the next TBID meeting to find out. TBID Chair Mehta offered that the current website was severely outdated and along with launch of the new site in December, TBID was trying to identify and hire a good social media marketing expert.
Regarding events, Cindy Bernard kicked off comments by pointing out that the $200K currently allocated in the TBID budget for events was allocated to events by the City Council, not by the TBID. She further reminded everyone that it takes at least a year of planning in advance, to keep a stage filled with well known performers, and said she believed the Freedom Plaza stage was the most underutilized resource in the City. Patrick Zuckowiki recounted how successful the recent 29 Palms Book Festival had been. Sarah Beck recommended local "Taste of the Desert" wine and food events, vintage car shows, and tours of local homes. AJ Raman then suggested the TBID engage an outsourced social media expert on a contract basis; a Greens Group representative suggested events such as mud runs, a lantern festival, powwows and astrology trade shows; T. Hammidi suggested a Hi Desert date festival; and Susan Peplow advocated formation of a grant committee to evaluate and recommend appropriate funding for proposed events.
Mayor Wright then opened up final comments at three minutes each. Stephen Przybylowski stepped forward and posed the question, "what does the TBID [board] think events should be?" Wright offered the TBID board members a chance to respond. Mehta replied that "the $200,0001 that was allocated for events was allocated in July of this year... was allocated because the TBID was conservative... we wanted to get the same analytics, and if we don't see that, people will point fingers at us. Now we're past the pandemic and we are willing. We are volunteers, we don't have time to create events. If you have ideas and if you are willing to take ownership, then please, come to our meetings!"
Sarah Beck suggested urgency, saying the TBID should be able to quickly hire an outside marketing person, that the TBID should try to make the City a wedding destination, and to further this the City ought to have an expedited process for approving small events like weddings.
Michael Usher recommended focusing on solutions rather than pointing fingers, and said Rediscover 29 would like to get events going starting in January.
A woman who didn't give her name inspired the crowd, proclaiming, "Twentynine is on the verge of a renaissance!"
Mayor Wright closed with prepared remarks that thanked all participants and struck an upbeat note, but which didn't mention any of the issues brought up during the meeting.
Councilmember Joel Klink then wondered aloud, "I'm not feeling that we're going anywhere with this. Do we need to have extra meetings? Like, two people from TBID and two people from Rediscover 29, to discuss these events we're talking about?" Wright responded, "November 9th," recommending that follow-up happen at the next TBID meeting — November 9 at 3:30 p.m.
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Mehta’s assertion is incorrect - the amount listed in the budget presented to City Council in the August 22 agenda was $120,000. The larger than usual figure was due to an intervention by the Council Events subcommittee. Councilmember Joel Klink suggested the increase to $200,000 at the at the August 22 meeting and Council agreed.