GREENFIELD — It would have been a tall order to find someone who knows more about Hancock County and its history.
Local historian Brigette Cook Jones has been named the executive director of Hancock County Tourism, a newly created position aimed at reinvigorating tourism in and around Greenfield. The position replaces Hancock County Visitors Bureau executive director Dave Scott, who is taking a step back to a part-time role organizing events at the H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, a renovated theater on West Main Street.
Jones currently works part time with the Hancock County Historical Society and the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum; she has served on the tourism commission, which oversees the visitors bureau’s funding and gives out grants to support local events, since its inception in 2011. As the county’s new tourism leader, Jones said her primary goals are to draw more attention to local events and attractions through social media, including an interactive website, and the creation of a team of volunteer ambassadors.
The creation of Jones’ position restructures the partnership between the nonprofit visitors bureau and the tourism commission, a move made in hopes of improving the relationship between the county’s tourism leaders and local hotel owners, whose innkeeper’s taxes fund tourism efforts, said Brad Armstrong, president of the Hancock County Board of Commissioners, which created the tourism commission.
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The visitors bureau, which owns both the theater and new visitors center, a renovated 3,200-square-foot building at 119 W. North St. that opens Jan. 2, is funded by the innkeeper’s tax charged to people who stay in local hotels. The tax, which generates about $180,000 per year for tourism, pays Jones’ $55,000 salary in addition to supporting efforts to promote Hancock County.
Hotel owners have long criticized the county’s tourism efforts, saying Scott’s focus on bringing acts to the theater has done little to attract tourists, and little else has been done to promote the county to visitors.
Since taking the position in 2002, Scott has focused his attention on promoting the theater but said the visitors bureau also sponsored other groups’ events. Most recently, the tourism commission and visitors bureau granted $15,000 for the North Street Living Alley, a new downtown community gathering space, he cited as one example.
But the visitors bureau has not created its own events to increase tourism in the county, which Scott attributed to a lack of manpower.
“I think we found it was more efficient under the circumstances to help existing events or aid others in getting their new events … off the ground,” he wrote in an email to the Daily Reporter.
Mohan Reddyreddy, who owns the Holiday Inn in Greenfield, said he’d like to see Jones be more active in reaching out to hotel owners as well as visitors to the county about upcoming events and attractions. An outspoken opponent of the innkeeper’s tax, Reddyreddy said he is frustrated by what he considers a lack of action by the tourism bureau.
Reddyreddy also owns a hotel in Montgomery County he said is booked up for more than two weeks thanks to tourism events. The Montgomery County Visitors and Convention Bureau has an active presence in the community, providing hotel guests with bottled water, goody bags and maps during peak travel times, which Reddyreddy said he’d like to see happen in Hancock County.
While the county’s events might not always draw people for multi-day stays, occupancy rates of hotels in Hancock County are on par with other parts of the state, Scott said.
Scott added he hopes Jones will be able to find common ground with local hotel owners.
Jones says she’s up to the task of increasing visibility of all Hancock County has to offer. Her first goal as the executive director of tourism is to create a unique brand, including a logo or tagline, for all promotional materials.
“I think our current promotional materials are inconsistent,” she said. “I want to have a social media presence, which we don’t have at all now.”
The tourism commission recommended Jones for the position because of her knowledge of local history, her upbeat personality and her ability to multitask, said tourism commission president Earl Smith.
Jones will immediately take over the management of the Hancock County Visitors Bureau website as well as the entirety of the bureau’s advertising and publishing endeavors, Smith said. The commission has instructed her to seek tourist attractions throughout the county, not just in Greenfield, as well as large tourist attractions in Indianapolis that can also bring guests to the county’s hotels and motels.
“Sometimes we forget about Shirley, Wilkinson and even smaller towns like Mohawk,” Smith said.
Brandy Zimmer, general manager at the Hampton Inn, also said she’d love to see Jones and the tourism bureau work together with hotel owners and provide welcome packages for groups staying in the county.
She hopes the visitors center will be a place where she can send guests to learn what there is to do in Hancock County, so their money will be spent locally instead of in Marion County.
Tourism commission members decided to hire someone to take over the marketing and promotional duties after Scott announced plans to retire from full-time work, Smith said. Scott’s new part-time position will be to serve as the theater manager and maintain the theater and visitors center.
Under the original agreement between Alan Strahl, who donated the theater facility, and the county, Scott’s job included maintenance and the promotion of the theater. When Jones begins her position, however, she won’t limit herself to promoting use of that facility.
“Dave’s job is a lot different than what mine is going to be,” she said.
Organizational changes are coming to how the funding is split between the bureau and the commission as well, Jones said. The visitors bureau previously oversaw some grant disbursements for tourist attractions and events. Next year, those duties will fall entirely to the tourism commission, Jones said.
The county in 2015 gave $213,500 to the tourism commission to put toward support of local events and attractions; an additional $105,000 appropriation went to the visitors bureau for promotional materials and support of additional tourism efforts. The county also paid Scott’s then-$51,300 salary, which Jan. 1 drops to $15,000 on Jan. 1.
Jones said she looks forward to helping highlight all her hometown has to offer — and she’s an expert on some of its best-kept secrets as a part-time employee of both, the Hancock County Historical Society’s museum, located on the eastern edge of Riley Park, and the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum on West Main Street. Jones will work with the two sites in an advisory capacity only once she takes on her position Jan. 1, to make sure those who replace her are well-trained, she said.
Because of her involvement in so many of the county’s tourist attractions and historical efforts, Jones manages about a half-dozen Facebook pages, she said. She is confident her comfort with social media will translate into more visibility for the county’s assets. However, she said she won’t forget about people who don’t have computers or smartphones, and she will continue to fund print advertising so those folks will know what’s going on in the county as well.
Jones will be headquartered in the new visitors center, a move she said will make her more accessible to the public than Scott has been since his office is located on the second floor of the theater with little signage directing visitors.
She also hopes to develop a group of volunteers who will serve as ambassadors for the county and work in the visitors center, since she is currently its only employee, and it will have to be closed if she is not there.
Jones’ knowledge of county history will prove valuable to her new position, Smith said.
“We all love this county; there are just a lot of things people don’t see,” he said. “I am hoping we can bring some of that to light.”
The office of the Hancock County Visitors Bureau is currently located upstairs at the HJ Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St., Greenfield. A newly renovated welcome center, around the corner at 119 W. North St., will open Jan. 2.
For more information, visit hcvb.org.
Brigette Cook Jones has been selected as the new executive director of the Hancock County Tourism Commission.
Brigette currently serves as the president of the Hancock County Historical Society and a director of the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum, though she plans to step down in order to accept this new, full-time position.
She hails from Hancock County and has served as a teacher before becoming involved in the historical society and Riley home.