Buford, Suwanee want to start visitors bureaus

LAWRENCEVILLE - Hotel and restaurant operators could have more of a say in how tourism dollars are spent in two northern Gwinnett cities, if a measure passes the General Assembly this year.

Suwanee and Buford officials have published legal advertisements saying the cities are interested in starting visitors bureaus.

Gregory Jay, the city attorney for both locales, said the bureaus would act to bring tourism stakeholders such as hotel and restaurant operators into the decision-making process.

"It's some of their money," he said, referring to hotel-motel taxes. "We want them to be partners at the table to make sure there's a return on that."

According to Denise Brinson, Suwanee's economic and community development manager, the creation of a bureau may not mean changes to how the city promotes tourism.

Suwanee uses the tourism portion of the hotel-motel tax to place advertisements in Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau literature and to put up billboards for local hotels. A portion of the money goes directly to the Gwinnett bureau.

Lisa Anders of the county bureau said the group has agreements with some local cities but is primarily funded by hotel-motel taxes from the unincorporated area of the county.

The bureau oversees the Gwinnett Center and its arena as well as the Gwinnett Sports Commission, and draws conferences, conventions and other special events to the area, bringing business to local hotels.

"A lot of (the cities) are trying to market their downtowns," Anders said. "It's much more of a Main Street effort."

While the Gwinnett bureau is the only legislatively created one in the county, Anders pointed to the Lawrenceville Tourism and Trade Association as an example of municipal efforts to promote downtowns. That board has sponsored concerts and other events on the Lawrenceville Square to attract people to local restaurants and businesses.

Brinson said the Suwanee bureau effort was not tied to the promotion of Town Center Park, a new city center. Events there, she said, are funded by the city's general fund and sponsorships, not the hotel-motel tax.

Officials at Buford City Hall did not return phone calls Thursday, but recently the city has made efforts to revitalize its historic downtown.

Atul Patel, who owns the Holiday Inn Express on Satellite Boulevard in Buford, said he did not know how many people stayed at his hotel for visits to the local antique market Tannery Row but said the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau does a lot to draw business.

"As a business owner and taxpayer, I would like to see (taxes) used. It would be nice, if they could attract more people to the area to help us," he said. "I try to get out and promote business for our hotel. If the city wants to do that, it would be a plus."

Mohammed Alam of the Comfort Suites and Comfort Inn hotels in Suwanee agreed.

"If they put more heads together, it has better ideas," he said.

According to Jay, the Buford Visitors Bureau Authority and Suwanee Gateway Visitors Bureau Authority would both consist of five members. Members would be appointed by the respective city councils.

Jay posted the intent to introduce local legislation in the local newspaper, but the local legislators have not sponsored bills to create the bureau.

Rep. Bobby Reese, R-Sugar Hill, who represents both cities, said he was not ready to comment on the proposals because he has not had time to study them. Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, did not return a phone call Thursday.