The Dalles City Council held a special work session Monday to gather public input about whether the funding formula for lodging taxes should be changed, or if the current dispersal adequately supported tourism and marketing activities.
“We decided it was a good time to look toward the future,” said Mayor Steve Lawrence.
For the past 19 years, The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce has provided tourism promotion through a contract with the city.
A minimum 21 percent of the 6 percent tax collected from hotel guests is mandated by the state to be used for tourism-related activities.
For fiscal year 2017-18, the chamber requested $243,800 but received $28,704 less.
Lawrence and all but Councilor Darcy Long Curtiss supported the cut. The mayor said he would like to those dollars set aside for economic development as “opportunity money.’”
Long-Curtiss opposed the move because area hotels were at 80 percent capacity and she felt the chamber’s established marketing activities were the best way to increase bookings.
The city expects to collect $770,496 in room tax during the current fiscal year, about $8,000 more than in 2016-17.
The city uses the money not given the chamber for general operations, grants to numerous nonprofits for a variety of programs, parks, fire protection and Main Street staffing.
In addition, the city funds other tourism-related activities, such as Riverfront Trail maintenance, Lewis and Clark Festival Park and dock maintenance, and the Sister City program with Miyoshi, Japan.
After giving a historical perspective about the creation of the tax, Lawrence invited his wife, Donna, to be the first speaker.
“If we were going to ask people to dinner, the first thing I’d do is clean house,” she said of the need to tidy up the downtown blocks.
She serves as the president of the Fort Dalles Museum board and said those historic structures also needed to be refurbished, and downtown murals enhanced..
Mrs. Lawrence also advocated for more money to be poured into events, such as the Independence Day festivities, Neon Cruise and drag races.
Many of the suggestions made by audience members centered on sprucing up the downtown blocks, and creating more shopping opportunities by filling empty storefronts, or creating a historic destination spot.
“Image is very important, a little image goes a long way,” said Chuck Gomez, new owner of the Granada Theater.
He and other speakers asked the city to do something about the homeless population that they said wandered the streets and hurt the city’s economic potential.
Some of the comments strayed away from traditional use of the funding, such as the suggestion from Rob Denning, owner of Immense Imagery, that the city put more of a focus on a digital marketing campaign.
Resident Fred Davis said it was important in all marketing efforts to make sure The Dalles retained its own character and did not become “Hood River or Bend.”
“We can’t walk away from the culture we have and still be The Dalles,” he said.
Carolyn Purcell, executive director of the Discovery Center, said she thought money should be used on billboard space in Hood River and other locations to remind people that The Dalles was also within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
Susan Buce, marketing manager for the center, said Multnomah Falls had 2.2 million visitors each year, while only about 38,000 tourists made their way to the center.
“It’s not that we don’t have a magnificent museum, we just need to pull more people into The Dalles,” she said.
She believed promoting the town needed to be done in a united effort by businesses, the hospitality industry, civic organizations, city officials, historic preservationists and other community groups.
Several other speakers echoed that thought. Some recommended that a tourism advisory committee be formed to work on a cross-media marketing plan.
The chamber got positive comments from many in attendance, who supported its multi-pronged promotional efforts.
chamber director, told the
council that she was listening closely to the comments made by everyone and trying to figure out how to incorporate them in marketing plans.
She said the chamber was always working to bring more people to town, most recently by reworking the historic walking tour brochure for launch next spring.
Buce, also on the board for the Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance, mentioned the chamber’s success with the Charm Trail, a program that encouraged people to go from business to business to buy charms.
“We still sell them at the museum on a regular basis,” she said.
Other suggested uses for tourism dollars included taxi service for cruise ship passengers and encouraging crafters to make more unique local products for visitors to buy.
Andrea Klaas, executive director of the Port of The Dalles, said it was important for the city to remember where room taxes came from.
“We need to get the lodgers involved in these conversations, see what their needs are and how they want to see this money spent,” she said.
Klaas said the area needed RV parks, something her office received many inquiries about.
“I think that’s a large segment of tourists that we’re missing out on right now,” she said.
Klaas and Dan Spatz, development director for Columbia Gorge Community College, spoke about the benefits of establishing a “Road Scholar,” educational hostel program, on The Dalles campus.
Spatz said getting vertical housing in place downtown would be one way to revitalize those blocks because there would be people living and recreating there.
Eileen White, manager of The Dalles Farmers Market, said everyone in town needed to remember that they served as unofficial ambassadors for the city. “A lot of people think they are not in the tourist industry but they are,” she said.
Randy Twidwell, a local broadcaster and concert promoter, said the community was held back by a poor attitude. He blamed The Dalles Chronicle for making a “terrible difference” by publishing negative stories and failing to support events.
“Endorsing what the city is doing is very important,” he said.
In 2016, the Chronicle editorialized against the city investing taxpayer dollars to fund a series of concerts planned by Twidwell and resident Nolan Hare without surety of repayment.
Twidwell apologized to the Chronicle the next morning for his remarks.
Resident Dave Rawsom jokingly suggested “Do it in The Dalles” be adopted as a marketing slogan.
“That leads to the greater question, ‘What is it?” It’s anything you want it to be,” he said.
Lawrence said the council would meet in about a month to discuss different options for expenditure of promotional funds.
He said the city was working on the issue prior to the 2017-18 budget cycle, so there were still months to plan, or even longer if necessary. “This is a start,” he said.