Identity crisis: The true story about the Ann Arbor - Ypsilanti CVB merger

There are a couple of things Debbie Locke-Daniel wants to make clear. First, though the Ypsilanti Area Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO publicly endorsed a resolution to combine her organization and the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) into one entity last week, it wasn't because she thinks it's the best idea ever. 

"We just lost," she says. "We just didn't have the votes. We never stopped wanting to remain two CVBs. We never stopped wanting to remain autonomous."

Second, though the vote has officially been delayed three weeks, she doesn't feel there's anything to be gained by continuing the divisive, Ann Arbor-versus-Ypsilanti rhetoric that has been sparking through the Ypsilanti community like firecrackers over the past few weeks. 

"That mentality on both sides has to go away for us all to work together to become a stronger county," she says. "If you say, 'I don't want to work with those people,' it's really not a positive thing."

Will that be enough to quell the masses in Ypsilanti who have been following the controversy on Mark Maynard's blog, advocating for keeping the CVBs separate on social media and have even launched a mock website to ridicule the effort to create one CVB entity?

That remains to be seen. What is difficult to find in the online clamor is the Washtenaw County board of commissioners' reasoning behind moving to a single CVB, and how the conversation got started in the first place. According to commissioner Conan Smith, the origins of the pending decision are fairly simple: The county's contracts with the two CVBs will expire at the end of the year, the board wants to convert them into the outcomes-oriented governance model they've been applying to all areas of country government and, he says, the YACVB simply hasn't been delivering on desired outcomes.

"We have invested more than a million dollars a year marketing the east side for the last five years, and we have not seen the needle move on key economic development metrics," says Smith, "We're doing something wrong. And we cannot continue to do the wrong thing."

The argument for one CVB

The wrong thing, according to Smith and others, manifests itself in a few ways at the YACVB. First, a group of hoteliers asked the commissioners for a merger of the two CVBs, citing inefficiencies, duplication of services and confusion created by the sales staff of two entities often trying to attract the same organizations to hold events in the same locations.

"There were legitimate areas of confusion and inefficiency that needed to be addressed," Smith says.

Additionally, the lack of specific, desired outcomes for the YACVB's marketing investments has resulted, in Smith's opinion, in some really excellent, creative work that simply misses the mark.

"The Ypsi Real campaign, like many of the Ypsilanti Area CVB's marketing investments, is inwardly targeted," he says, stating the campaign is geared toward encouraging Ypsilanti residents to take pride in their community and shop locally. "The intention of the tax is to bring people who are outside of our community into the community to spend their dollars here." 

And those dollars matter to the whole county. While Ypsilanti has five percent of the hotel beds in Washtenaw, the YACVB receives 25 percent of the hotel tax. While that percentage is set to continue under the new structure, Smith says Ypsi's subsidized CVB money must be better invested. 

"We're actually going to increase the number of dollars we're going to invest in the east side with this model," he says. "However, we're going to have to be really smart about who we're targeting that investment towards."

Is a single, countywide CVB the only way to achieve that? Smith doesn't necessarily think so.

"One CVB fine. Two CVBs, whatever," he says. "Tell me what you're going to do with the money and how that's going to make the community better, that's what's important to me."

The Ypsi pushback

"Whatever" does not describe the Ypsilanti community's response to the proposed restructuring. A legitimate complaint, Smith acknowledges, is that Ypsilanti will lose autonomy over the money spent to promote their community. But Ann Arbor, he says, is being put the same position, as it won't be allowed to make up a majority of board members, even though the city's hotels bring in 90 percent of the revenue. 

"People want to frame it as an Ann Arbor takeover," Smith says, "but, in truth, when you really delve into the structure, it's not. It's nowhere near that."

And though Locke-Daniels agrees that is not the intention, she still has her doubts about whether or not that will be the result. 

"No matter how hard they try, I think the Ann Arbor brand is where most of the money is going to go," Locke-Daniel says. "Definitely, there is going to be some loss of identity on this side of the county."

That's just the beginning of Ypsilanti's gripes with the proposed change. Despite Smith's assertion that the YACVB wasn't hitting desired outcomes, Locke-Daniel says the organization has been measuring outcomes and a recent analysis of their overall economic impact generated $8 for every dollar spent. She also says her sales staff generates $7 million worth of economic impact for area hotels. (Note: documentation of these numbers was not provided as of press time)

"We think it's definitely respectable for an organization our size," she says.

And while Locke-Daniel says the YACVB didn't intend for the Ypsi Real campaign to be strictly inwardly focused, she says much of the work they've been doing has been on the innovative edge of CVB-thinking, concentrating on economic development as well as marketing. This includes investments in wayfinding signage and their Community Tourism Action Plan grants.

"If it has a tourism effect, we consider [an economic development investment] to be appropriate," she says, and while they may not have the same type of measurable outcomes as traditional CVB efforts, they are beneficial for Ypsilanti. "They're just a little different."

What happens next

The internal process for determining the best way to move the county's CVBs to an outcomes-oriented model has been, Smith freely admits, a flawed process. A committee tasked with crafting the desired outcomes was hijacked by the conversation about restructuring the organizations into a single entity. 

"Once that threat was in the air, it was all anyone wanted to talk about," he says. And though the board was not of one mind about the best way forward, when time became an issue, they simply had to come to a consensus. 

"So that's when saw the majority of the board develop around this particular solution," says Smith.

And though the scheduled vote on the creation of a single county CVB last week was delayed for three weeks after Ypsilanti community members attended the meeting to protest the decision, neither Smith nor Locke-Daniel anticipates a change in the outcome. 

"We fought the good fight, but it all comes down to votes," Locke-Daniel says. "And we knew, not so long ago, that we did not have the votes."

With that in mind, her priority was securing the best deal possible for Ypsilanti and the other communities on the east side of Washtenaw County. And she feels the final resolution was "about as good as you're going to get."

That includes guaranteeing Ypsilanti receives at least 25 percent of the budget and 25 percent of total board membership, retaining the YACVB office and staff, a continuation of the popular Community Tourism Action Plan and dedicated programming for Ypsilanti. 

What will happen now is a public forum, tentatively set for Oct. 1 at 6pm at Riverside Arts Center to discuss the change in more detail with the community. What that is intended to do, Locke-Daniel and Smith agree, is to sell the plan to the community, not to receive public input that could change the board's decision.

But whether or not the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners anticipates being changed by the public outcry, Locke-Daniel, for one, won't soon forget it.

"We're somewhat surprised that it's been as big as it has, and it's very heartening to us that that many people care about this place staying," she says. 

Even so, she says, it's time to move forward.

"It's wishful thinking that something magical could occur and it would reverse the whole trajectory, but I don't think it will happen," she says."We want to move forward into the new year and put this one entity together so it can be the best it can be for the whole county."

Natalie Burg is a senior writer at Concentrate and IMG project editor.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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