Chamber’s bare minimum reporting isn’t enough. City needs to demand more detail.

By The Myrtle Beach Sun News Editorial Board

The Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
The Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce in Myrtle Beach, S.C. jbell@thesunnews.com

Consultant Gordon Hirsch of Myrtle Beach presented to the city council a plan to improve the city’s image and communications with residents and tourists and the Hirsch report is spot-on in saying the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce must have more transparency in its reporting how taxpayer money is spent.

The responsibility is on the city because it implemented, without a direct vote by taxpayers, the 1 percent tourism development fee, which is a retail sales tax that generates more than $25 million a year. Most of the revenue is spent for out-of-area marketing. The chamber purchases the advertising and so forth as the agent of the city. The chamber also spends accommodations tax money for the city.

The rub comes after the money is spent, when the chamber issues quarterly reports. Here are a few examples from the first quarter of 2018: “Internet Adv[ertising] – social media | $283,885.40; –search | $309,133.69; –display | $234,109.72. These three payments were of seven to Visibility & Conversions, LLC.

An expenditure of $40,770 to “Group Tour Leader” is listed for a “Group Tour.” Any reasonable accounting would show more details, such as the name and firm of the tour leader, the number of persons on the tour and who they represented. “Times Printing Co., Inc.” received seven payments for “Inquiry Fulfillment,” the largest being $187,653.49, which must have been quite an inquiry. Times Printing received two other payments of $57,513.02 and $41,062.87.

This bare-bones reporting causes Hirsch to state that he cannot evaluate if the money was spent in an effective manner to attract tourists. “We gave them $20 or $25 million in tax money, they need to tell us how they spent it, end of story.”

In a response to the Hirsch report, the chamber declared it agrees “that transparency is paramount. We are pleased to note that we have routinely shared the results and effectiveness of tourism campaigns with [the council, city staff] and the public, and will, of course, continue to do so. We also have been working closely this summer with city staff on the accountability report we post on our website and link to on the city’s site. This report details the tourism spending on various marketing activities such as air service advertising, consumer promotion, group sales, TV advertising and research. It is gratifying to know that we are already implementing the recommendations that Mr. Hirsch suggested.”

One need not be a certified public accountant to challenge the chamber’s claim that its bare minimum tells anyone exactly how the TDF money is spent and if the expenditures are effective. The city needs to require the chamber to be more detailed in its reporting of both TDF and accommodations expenditures.

While Hirsch is on solid ground about the chamber’s accounting of tax dollars, we take issue with his assertions in “Situation Analysis / The News Media & Education.” It is a stretch to label “Analysis” Hirsch’s rant about “The 24-hour news cycle … not built to be informative, nor suited to educating people about anything.” He makes valid points about competition and content, and that “News about government and issues facing communities almost always is complicated.”

“Today’s news formats are more suited to infotainment. And not just broadcast news. There is little remaining difference between local daily newspapers and broadcast media. Both compete in the same 24-hour news cycle in the same abbreviated fashion.” He ignores The Sun News reporting on government and community issues.

Weekly newspapers “deserve our support” Hirsch writes, making clear his animus toward this local daily newspaper. His opinion is a stinging rebuke of our ongoing community journalism and we take great offense.

The Strategic Communications Planning Report was done under a City of Myrtle Beach contract ($19,500) for “Communications Consultant Services” with Hirsch, doing business as G2CS, LLC. The 27-page report was presented to the city council Aug. 28.