According to an analysis of data by the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, the special sales tax that supports the Jackson Convention Center has raised more than $23 million over the past five years.
Yet the convention center has lost more than $4.9 million during the same timeframe, according to annual reports issued by the center and needs more money to keep the lights on and employees working.
Tuesday, the Jackson City Council tabled until their next meeting a proposal that would’ve given the struggling facility $131,000 from the city’s general funds to cover the facility’s bills until September 30. The next city council meeting is September 17.
The city’s tourism promotion agency, Visit Jackson, has already contributed $450,000 to the convention center’s operating funds this year. Visit Jackson is supported by a 1 percent tax on food in the city limits.
“We need to assure that the doors aren’t closed and that those who have already booked the convention center have a functioning staff, willing, ready and able to support their events,” Jackson Mayor Antar Lumumba said at the council meeting.
The center’s website lists nine events through October.
He also proposed that the city do a new request for proposals from management companies to see if another group can get the convention center’s bottom line out of the red. At present, the center is managed by SMG.
The idea of spending city funds to bail out what was supposed to be a $66 million economic engine annually for the city didn’t sit well with some on the council.
“I don’t think we should have to make an emergency decision to dispense $130,000 without a presentation from the people asking for the money, talking about their business model and why there’s a shortfall of $130,000 so we can understand and get a sense of whether there are issues with the organization itself,” said City Councilman Ashby Foote, who represents Ward 1.
“We can’t sit here and be an ATM for people coming in and saying ‘I need another $130,000.’”
According to the 2017 report, the center’s number of events and attendance fell from 2016. There were 207 event days in 2017, versus 293 in 2017. The number of visitors declined by 182,124 in 2016 to 131,910 in 2016.
SMG also manages the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and Lumumba said their approach might not fit Jackson’s needs.
“If we were confident that their (SMG) business model was the best business model, we wouldn’t be doing that (issuing an RFP),” Lumumba said. “They’re not profitable, but you do this to assure heads and beds in your hotels. Most convention centers break even.”
The Morial Convention Center lost $36,275 in operating revenues in 2018, $31,450 in 2017 and $29,925 in 2016, but it attracted 739,161 visitors in 2017 and generated an economic impact of $2.3 billion.
Jackson’s convention center was credited for $18.7 million in direct and indirect spending in 2017, a far cry from the $66 million in economic impact that supporters of building the convention center cited as a reason to spend taxpayer dollars on the facility, which still doesn’t have an attached hotel.
The sales tax for the convention center is one of three levied in the Jackson city limits. The convention center levy is a one percent tax on restaurants, a three percent tax on sales of hotels and a $2 tax on every rental car.
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The sales tax to fund construction and operation of the $65 million convention center was authorized by House Bill 1832, which was passed in the 2004 session. The convention center opened in 2009.