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Tourism group to take on Electric City city hall

Tourism money shouldn't be spent on pathway

 

A view of Electric City and more from the air in 2013, including Banks Lake Golf Course at the bottom and Sunbanks Lake Resort at middle left.

Tourism interests expressed heated frustration with Electric City's council in a meeting last Thursday at Sunbanks Resort, frustration to the point of hiring a lawyer.

The meeting, organized by the Grand Coulee Dam Area Chamber of Commerce, included members of its board of directors and several lodging businesses in the area that collect a tax on tourists, which the city has decided to spend on a pathway project.

The purpose of the meeting was to find a way to get Electric City to use its nearly $400,000 of hotel/motel fund reserves for advertising instead of the pathway project. The city council has recently dedicated that much to the project, including $40,000 for planning work.

That decision effectively shuts out any other spending in future years for promoting tourism through advertising or festivals or other events, such as rodeos.

"I can tell you right now, I want that $40,000 back in the budget," stated Pat Welton, managing partner at the 185-space Sunbanks Lake Resort, whose annexation into the city a few years ago has provided most of the taxes collected on lodging in the whole area.

Welton had just learned from a lawyer he has engaged that the city had begun to respond to a request for public documents regarding the city's process for deciding how to spend that money.

Welton said the intent of the state law used for collecting the tax intended the money to be spent, every year, just as is the practice by other entities that collect the tax, such as Grant County Tourism Commission on which he once served.

The law allows for building tourism facilities, Welton noted, but added, "You don't dedicate your entire budget for a capital project."

The group decided to form a tourism committee of lodging and hospitality businesses, the chamber and any other businesses that wish to join.

Mike Bradley, owner of the Columbia River Inn in Coulee Dam, said the group should send a "demand letter" from an attorney to Electric City, demanding that they stop spending the lodging tax funds on the proposed trail. And he said the group should push for a long-term solution that would put the tourism advisory board in charge of spending the money, so that any proposals for its use would first go to that board, which would be empowered by the city councils.

Others at the meeting painted a picture of how they would be affected.

Chamber Executive Director Peggy Nevsimal said Electric City's contract with the chamber puts so many stipulations on the money that it's almost impossible to spend it. She noted the chamber's six festivals serve the purpose of both promoting the area and bringing in revenue for chamber operations. Without the festivals, she said, there would be no full-time chamber, nor a marketing agency to promote the whole area.

Kerry Higgins, president of the chamber and owner of Trail West Motel, said that the contract between Electric City and the chamber for tourism dollars is so tightly written that you can't spend the money on "general tourism."

George Kohout, president of the Ridge Riders Saddle Club, which also gets money from the fund, said that before the club got the city's support for the rodeo, they typically attracted 600 people to town. Last year, he said, their efforts brought in about 5,000 and the Colorama Rodeo has been named rodeo of the year in three of the last four years.

"If this dies, it's gonna hurt us bad," Kohout said. "This has meant a whole bunch to us."

Bob Valen, president of Coulee Area Parks and Recreation District, said hotel/motel money allows his group to maintain North Dam Park. Prior to the CAPRD getting involved and receiving hotel/motel money for maintenance, weeds were three to four feet high at the park.

Two of the chamber events (Colorama, Harvest) are held at the park.

Nevsimal said it is nearly impossible to get on the Electric City council agenda. "When we do, we only get three minutes," she stated.

Nevsimal started the meeting by showing how festivals have grown and tourism has been on the grow because of advertising.

This year Electric City cut chamber funding by $5,000. Some on the council thought that some of the festivals should be self supporting.

The year 2015 also took a hit because of major forest fires and very hot weather. Tourism was way down and many businesses showed negative numbers.

Kevin Portch, owner of Loepp Furniture, said he was "surprised at what Electric City was doing," and he "wondered what was going on behind closed doors."

Approached later, local business owners said tourism is very important to the local economy.

Gary Norris, of H&H Grocery in Electric City, said Monday that tourism accounts for probably 50 percent of his business. He said, "Three to four months during the tourist season things are busy," he said, "two months are so-so, and six months are slow."

Carlene Worsham, owner of Pepper Jack's Bar and Grille, said, "If it wasn't for tourists, most of the businesses around here would have to close. Tourism business is huge. ... We have to save revenue from the summer months to get through the winter."

The "demand letter," Welton said toward the end of Thursday's meeting, should state the strong case for a tourism advisory board and that a certain percentage of the lodging tax revenues must be spent on promoting the area through advertising.

"What they're doing is pure wrong," Welton said, "because there are people's livelihoods that are on the line here, now and in the future."

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