Regional tourism bureau may be created

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Legislation to create a regional tourism bureau on the Mississippi Gulf Coast seems to have a good chance of passing this year. You may recall, a similar bill failed in the legislature last year.

The current bill calls for dissolving the current Harrison County Tourism Commission and creating a 15 member, tri-county tourism bureau.

"I think the main benefit is probably more accountability, transparency and performance standards that are all called for in this bill. We'll be able to adequately measure what the Harrison County tax dollar is going towards and whether it's productive," said Supervisor Kim Savant.

John Hairston helped lead several community meetings last year to discuss the issue of a regional tourism agency. He says the current bill, "Legislates the key ingredients to a dynamic, inclusive and transparent tourism leadership organization."

Off camera, some leaders say one of the biggest obstacles preventing a regional bureau has been "turf battles."

"Whenever there's change, there's certainly some type of tension and stress that comes with this. But with this new bill, this keeps the current director, the current contracts in place. We're just moving forward, streamlining services, saving dollars," said Harrison County Supervisor Windy Swetman.

While there may be some differences about specifics in the proposal, most everyone will agree that the future of tourism is critical. Especially since nearly one in five jobs on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is tourism-related.

Tourism season already looks promising for the Biloxi shrimping trip business. The owner has no problems with a regional tourism group, provided it stays public.

"I just hope that, wherever the cards fall, that it does benefit tourism and not individuals or any private entity. That everyone benefits from it," said owner Brandy Moore.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Richard Bennett, says both the business community and elected leaders have expressed support for House Bill 1716.

The bill also addresses funding sources for the new tourism bureau. The current three percent tax on hotel rooms would be used to help finance the group. It also says Harrison County supervisors "may" levy a special ad valorem tax, not to exceed one mill.

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