JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — For a second straight year, discussions surrounding gateway markers have sparked friction between the Johns Creek City Council and Convention and Visitors Bureau.
At a Nov. 4 meeting, City Councilwoman Stephanie Endres grilled CVB Chair Lynda Lee Smith about the bureau’s partnership with the art nonprofit Urban Catalyst Lab, comparing it to “crony capitalism.”
The CVB partnered with Urban Catalyst Lab in 2018 to create a mural in the walking tunnel under Medlock Bridge Road. The two groups are currently working together to design a gateway marker planned along State Bridge Road.
The CEO of Urban Catalyst Lab and Lee Smith both worked for Habitat for Humanity, according to their LinkedIn pages. Lee Smith said they were both board members for the nonprofit.
“In the public eye, when you’re using taxpayer dollars everything has to be transparent,” Endres said. “My question was did you know that and at that time did you disclose that ... I think that’s very important from a transparency topic for the residents. Everybody knows crony capitalism is a hot topic today.”
Lee Smith adamantly denied there had been any wrongdoing or personal gain on her part. She said she leveraged her relationships to allow the CVB to complete projects at below the market rate. She also said the entire CVB board new why Urban Catalyst was chosen when they made their recommendation to the City Council.
“There is no personal reward for me,” she said. “This is for the citizens of Johns Creek who actually want to see progress, who want to be proud of their city.”
This is not the first time Lee Smith has sparked with the City Council.
Most think of Johns Creek as an affluent bedroom community, not a tourist hotspot. Still, the city is home to three hotels, all located in Technology Park and largely sustained by business travel.
“Tourists are in all forms,” Lee Smith said. “It could be your in-laws. It could be your cousins. It could be a bar mitzvah. Any kind of event that brings visitors, leaves tax dollars.”
Visitors at those hotels are charged a 7 percent hotel tax, which in 2019 is expected to generate about $193,000. But less than a third of that money goes directly to the city’s coffers.
State law dictates that the money be split three ways: one portion to the city’s general fund, another goes to the CVB for promoting tourism. The final portion, 39.3 percent, goes to tourism product development — capital projects that create or improve destinations that appeal to visitors.
In Johns Creek, the City Council and tourism bureau share control of these funds. The CVB proposes projects, the City Council decided which project move forward and the CVB implements them.
Though they vary in what degree they are willing to compromise with the CVB, council members generally say they’d like to see tourism product development dollars go to projects that can attract visitors and benefit residents, such as parks improvements.
Funding for Autrey Mill Nature Preserve and the Veterans Memorial Walk at Newtown Park, for example, were approved for 2019 and 2020 with little debate. The city has also asked the tourism board to look at funding for a Chattahoochee greenway study and a performing arts venue.
But, the CVB’s request for artistic gateway markers at city entrances has met resistance.
Last year, the CVB asked the council to allocate $114,000 from tourism funds to construct two artistic gateway markers at the east and west entrances to the city on State Bridge Road. The CVB pointed to a study completed by a tourism consultant that said a lack of signage and sense of place were key weaknesses for the city.
The City Council asked the CVB to come up with alternative proposals. Some were hesitant to approve gateway signage after a similar, though more expensive, proposal had been shot down in 2010. Others were critical of the artist chosen through Urban Catalyst Lab, asking instead for a Johns Creek resident to design the marker or for an open bidding process.
After more than five months of back and forth, in a 4-3 vote, the council approved funding one gateway marker. Council members John Bradberry, Chris Coughlin and Endres voted against the move.
Since then, the tourism bureau has gathered public feedback on the project and developed preliminary designs. About 570 residents recently voted in an online poll. Ultimately the final design will go to the public art board for a recommendation and then to the City Council for final approval.
A few weeks ago, it might have seemed like the tourism product development process could go more smoothly this year.
At an Oct. 21 work session, the council and CVB seemed poised to agree on funding for the Wall That Heals, Autrey Mill and a Chattahoochee Greenway study. The council asked to wait until they had seen the public feedback on this year’s gateway project before they agreed to fund a second marker.
“I think this conversation has been good so far,” Councilman Lenny Zaprowski said Oct. 21. “You guys have been a great partner with us through a difficult time.”
The tone was less friendly at the Nov. 4 council meeting.
Without necessarily suggesting it, Endres raised the possibility of eliminating the hotel tax and dissolving the CVB, which is within the power of the City Council.
“If you decided that a convention and visitors bureau, that is in every city across the United States, was not necessary in the city of Johns Creek and that the marketing efforts and the assets we build here are of no relevance, you could in fact, as a city council disband the convention visitors bureau,” Lee Smith said.
Other council members seemed uncomfortable with the questions Endres raised.
“I think you’ve done a great job creating animosity,” Mayor Mike Bodker said.
Zaprowski said he questioned the choice of artist and the gateway project more broadly, but still thanked the CVB for being a good partner to the city.
“I’d like to apologize,” Zaprowski said. “We have children sitting in the audience, and I don’t think we’re being good examples.”