Sunday May 29th, 2016 4:00AM

Merchants fill Helen commission meeting

By Rob Moore Reporter
HELEN - In what they said is attempt to "wipe the slate clean" between merchants and government, more than two dozen Helen merchants packed the Helen City Commission meeting Tuesday afternoon.

Not only was the meeting room almost full, the city hall parking lot overflowed by nearly a dozen vehicles.

Cliff Steinkraus, representing the merchants, explained that the group is forming a business association to help store owners, restaurants and entertainment establishments in the city with promotion and government interaction.

Steinkraus said he met with City Manager Jerry Elkins Monday, and that he and many from the group attended the Alpine Helen/White County Convention and Visitors Bureau meeting Tuesday morning to educate themselves on what entity does what in the city.

"We want to use this to create an attitude of cooperation," Steinkraus said.

Steinkraus questioned the amount of hotel/motel tax given to the CVB for marketing Helen, how the welcome center construction was funded and whether it pays rent, and other budget questions. He said he was not taking issue with those expenditures, but rather trying to learn more and answer questions from merchants.

He noted there already is a website for the business association, and he plans to hold a class on social media marketing.

Elkins gave an overview of projects funded with the hotel/motel tax in recent years.

After hearing Elkins' comments, Steinkraus acknowledged, "Sometimes you're critical of it because you don't understand it."

While the CVB is a government-appointed entity, Elkins pointed out the Helen Chamber of Commerce is "not funded or controlled by the city."

Several merchants expressed confusion over the two entities, not knowing which does what.

The CVB receives a portion of the hotel/motel tax, which is used to market Helen and White County to the public.

The chamber of commerce organizes events in the city, including Oktoberfest, bingo and others.

Derek Long pointed to a perceived previous lack of communication as a source of weakness, saying, "We're trying to go in a positive direction with the town."

Commissioner Helen Wilkins commended Long and the group saying, "You're coming together and I think that's wonderful."

Commissioner Dona K. Burke agreed.

Elkins encouraged participation in government and other entities.

"I invite everyone to get involved with the CVB, with the city, with the chamber," Elkins said. "We want people to know what we're doing with the hotel/motel tax."

Steinkraus said the business association is forming an event committee.

Discussing the past weekend's Alpine Mountain Crawl (also known as Helen Jeep Fest), he said, "Without the help of everybody, it wouldn't have come together."

"I think it was great," Burke said.

Merchants in the city took over planning and management of the event, which drew more than 500 registered Jeeps in its first year.

"[Helen Police Officer] William Lee deserves the credit, because he had the vision," Long said.

Long talked about accomplishing a lot with the weekend event, despite a small budget.

"We worked on a budget of like $2,200 for that event," Long said.

Long expressed appreciation to city officials for waiving some requirements at the last minute so that Jeep Fest could happen.

"We're just asking for y'all's support for other ventures," Long said.

Mayor Judy Holloway said those holding an event in town need to follow the prescribed methods rather than asking for last-minute waivers.

Long said it should be easier for those wanting to start a business in one of the vacant storefronts in Helen, just as it should be easier to bring a large event to the city.

"We need to wipe the slate clean," Long said. "We don't need to have to connect the dots. We need to be making a line, not forming a Z. We're just saying that the guidelines need to be clear to us - to some of the laypeople."

Recently-appointed Helen Planning, Design and Review Board Member Geff McAllister, who retired from Athens-Clarke County after 29 years, took issue with the comments from merchants.

"Every time I've ever walked up to this city hall, that front door has been unlocked - there's somebody I can talk to," McAllister said. "I have a hard time believing individuals who are smart enough to run a business and make a good profit at it have a hard time coming up to this city hall and talking to our elected officials about what they need to do to stay within the boundaries of the established parameters of the local ordinances and laws governing Georgia."

McAllister praised Helen officials, both elected and appointed.

"I've never found a better group of people in my life," McAllister said. "If you want to deal with a government that will get under your craw, you go to some of these bigger cities. This place up here is a cakewalk!"

McAllister reminded merchants that city officials will sit down with them and answer their questions, but reminded them the elected and appointed leaders aren't going to come to them.

"It takes everybody in this town to work together," Long said.

McAllister's wife, Linda, encouraged the merchants to attend a Helen Chamber of Commerce meeting to learn more about that organization, just as they had attended the CVB meeting and the city commission meeting.

Linda McAllister said a packet to welcome new businesses has been on her mind for years.

Long agreed something like a "welcome wagon" packet would be beneficial to those wanting to start a business in the city.

"I think we're going in the right direction," Burke said.

Other elected officials also commented on the hour-long discussion with merchants.

"Go to all the meetings," Holloway encouraged.

"We've all got to work together and we all care so much for this town," Wilkins said.

Burke said she is hopeful someone will plan a concert on the Marketplatz, similar to the one held featuring The Gina Gailey Band last year, and that someone will hold a tubing parade with decorated tubes for Labor Day.

Both those events were part of the city's Centennial celebration in 2013.
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