Theoretically, more than $820,000 of lodging tax funds will be spent in the next year to bring more visitors to the islands. In reality, a significant amount of money is squandered on events that don't increase tourism while projects that would are unfunded.
The lodging tax money is the 4 percent additional sales tax people pay when they stay overnight in a lodging facility. According to state law, the funds can be spent on:
Promotion of tourism
Marketing of special events and/or festivals designed to attract tourists
Operation of special events and/or festivals designed to attract tourists
Operating expenditures of tourism-related facilities owned or operated by nonprofit organizations
Operating expenditures for city- and county-owned tourism-related facilities
Capital expenditures for city- and county-owned tourism-related facilities
The state guidelines direct the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee (LTAC) to consider ideas that bring people from more than 50 miles away and who stay in paid lodging overnight.
County staff member Stan Matthews told the committee they don't have to make their decisions based on that criteria but do need to "consider it."
The LTAC's own set of guidelines (posted at the end of this article) state projects are expected to "Special Events or festivals that exemplify the natural resources, cultural offerings or history of the San Juan Islands".
The county Council authorizes the distribution of the grants after receiving the recommendations from the lodging tax advisory committee. The committee is comprised of an equal number of receivers (people related to organization that receive funding) and providers (people from lodging facilities).
The council can authorize different amounts than the LTAC recommends but cannot fund anything that wasn't on the original list of applicants. On July 16, the council agreed with the recommendations and 14 of the 18 projects were funded.
The four unfunded included Lopez Tennis which did not qualify since the request was for a capital improvement and the facility is not government-owned.
The 18 applications are posted here. The list of funded requests is posted on page three of this PDF.
Ten percent was to be used for new projects. Instead of $41,100 the LTAC recommended $31,100 go to new projects.
The three new projects, all of which received 100% of their requests, are the Orcas Island Birding Festival ($6,100), the Friday Harbor Pioneer Family Festival ($1,250) and the Drive-in Theater at the San Juan County Fairgrounds ($25,000).
During her presentation, Fair Manager Maddie Ovenell told the LTAC, "I am not naive enough to believe people will travel to the islands to see the movies."
Despite that, the LTAC recommended full funding of the $25,000 request. They didn't ask what time this family-friendly activity will start. As everyone knows, it is rather late before it gets dark at this latitude - the 4th of July Fireworks shows start at 10:30 p.m. No one asked if the drive-in idea met the land use rules governing the fairgrounds or how the event lines up with the 10 p.m. noise curfew. Neighbors say they haven't been asked for their opinion.
The purchase of a dance floor for the main fair building would do more to attract organizers of events that would be likely to draw tourists.
Funding the purchase of an inflatable outdoor movie screen and not granting a dime to the Friday Harbor Film Festival, a joint proposal from the Lopez, Orcas and San Juan Island artist tours and the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival is dumbfounding.
Another perplexing decision was made and continues to be made by the San Juan Island Visitor Bureau.
Half of the four percent lodging sales tax is paid to the SJIVB which serves as a destination marketing organization (DMO) for San Juan County.
The SJVIB hired a webdesigner whose only prior experience was building a website for a friend who coincidentally was the SJIVB board president. To pay someone $60k+ for the redesign after receiving other bids for less that $15,000 is puzzling. And to be spending $80,000 a year for maintenance and updates is beyond absurd.
One would think with that discrepancy in bids, the board would have done another more widespread round of requests for proposals. The outreach for the proposals was a small ad in the weekly printed paper. There are dozens of experienced website designers in the county who could have provided an excellent website redesign at a reasonable cost.
Asked if it wouldn't be better use the $80,000 a year to hire an employee who could as part of their duties maintain and update the website, SJVIB Executive Director replied that a $15 an hour employee wouldn't have the skills required.
Why the wage would be $15 an hour wasn't clear. Even hiring someone at $25 for 40 hours per week would cost $52,000 and most of the person's time would be available for other SJIVB work.
The distribution of the lodging tax funds needs to be overhauled. If the SJVIB irresponsibly burns through $227,000 in three years on website maintenance and redesign, than obviously some of the lodging tax revenue they receive could be better used elsewhere.
The county council should change the relevant ordinances and divide the total 4 percent so less goes to the SJVIB and more to funding projects and events. The islands need more events to draw visitors to the island and less advertising about how wonderful everything is.
The other thing that needs to be changed is the mindset of the committee. All islanders are affected by the number of visitors that come to the islands. Facilities used by both islanders and visitors need to be maintained. Tourism is now the main industry in the islands since the construction industry was harmed by the recession.
The attitude of the LTAC is the money belongs to the lodging facility operators. The focus is on what is best for them. While they collect it, its use is to increase visitors to the islands.
The wise use of this money would benefit us all.
LTAC MASTER PLAN: Funded projects will be expected to achieve the following objectives:
Advance the priorities set in the LTAC Master Plan (Available on County web site AT: http://sanjuanco.com/LTAC) .
Emphasis on tourism may include a variety of methods:
i. Development of key community assets that function as point destinations, or venues for multi-purpose events, and serve on a year-round basis;
ii. Special Events or festivals that exemplify the natural resources, cultural offerings or history of the San Juan Islands;
iii. Meetings or retreats that focus on the “best of the San Juan Islands” as identified above;
Developing innovative opportunities (i.e. new events, interesting partnerships). Creativity and synergy are encouraged. Use of capacity in existing community facilities is encouraged;
Improving the tourist/islander relationship/enhancing the tourism experience*
i. Visitor education events (i.e. eco-tourism, agri-tourism)
ii. Community involvement strategies
iii. Improved effectiveness of coordinated transportation and trail linkages including streetscapes and signage
Projects that promote coordination and cooperation in tourism activities
Projects that demonstrate countywide benefit
2014 LTAC PRIORITIES FOR TOURISM DEVELOPMENT (Listed in alphabetical order)
Assist arts festivals and events get underway with funding, and encouraging partnerships with existing facilities.
Support efforts to enhance and use the fairgrounds and its facilities for visitor-related activities beyond the fair itself.
LTAC considers County Parks critical and necessary to the tourist industry and to the County’s economy.
It will actively support efforts to provide an alternative, sustainable funding system for the County’s parks.
Support food related markets, festivals and events
Support facilities and programs to expose visitors to locally grown and/or prepared food, wine and other beverages.
Assisting in the development of a "comfort station" plan with standards, identification of existing restrooms available to the public, indications of where more restrooms are needed and a strategy for financing them.
Museums & Theatres
Encouraging partnerships with sponsors of other local activities and events to provide income and help communities take full advantage of their facilities.
Encourage the creation and installation of "welcome" and directional signs identifying communities and attractions. Signs should reflect the County’s unique culture and draw on the talent of its community of artists. (Proposals must comply with San Juan County Code).
Encourage development of transportation options for carless visitors