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The Pagosa Springs Visitor Center will no longer be operated by the Chamber of Commerce, a service the Chamber has provided to the town for over 25 years; instead, it will be run by the Town Tourism Committee, starting May 1, 2014.
“I think we have beaten this issue to death,” Mayor Ross Aragon said at last Thursday’s town council meeting. “We’ve had work sessions, we’ve had committees participate with other committees, and so there is no lack of us being involved in this. We’ve been deeply involved.”
After the mayor asked for public comment and none was offered, he asked for a motion.
“Mister Mayor,” Councilor Kathie Lattin spoke up, “I would recommend approval of operating the Visitor Center within the Chamber of Commerce through April 30, 2014, at the funding level approved in the 2013 budget of $4,750 per month totaling $19,000 for four months, and approve transferring the operations of the Visitor Center to the Town Tourism Committee effective May 1, 2014.”
Council member Darrel Cotton seconded the motion. Lattin and Cotton had both been appointed by the mayor last April to serve on a subcommittee to deal with the Visitor Center issue, and have had several meetings since then with representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, as well as Steve Wadley from the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners.
However, if the mayor hoped for a speedy end to the topic at last week’s meeting, one person could be counted on to not let the matter drop without a discussion.
“I’m not all that comfortable with moving forward in this process for several reasons,” council member David Schanzenbaker argued. “I guess the question I have is, why would the TTC want to run a visitor center when their stated strategy is to reduce its funding over time? It seems like they’re putting themselves in the awkward position of running themselves into the ground.”
At first, Schanzenbaker’s observation seemed to stump town manager David Mitchem, who was unable to produce an immediate reply and instead asked TTC director Jennie Green to come forward out of the audience. While waiting for Green to occupy the hot seat, however, Mitchem started to speak.
“The rationale here,” Mitchem began, “is to put money where it has the greatest impact. Right now, there’s evidence the greater impact is with technology and marketing, without doing away with the Visitor Center, at all. The Visitor Center is still going to be maintained; it’s just a question of the funding level, and the prudent use of lodgers tax moneys. This is fulfilling what town council approved during your last budget cycle — basically, a policy position saying you were intent on moving more money to marketing and technology and less money to the physical Visitor Center.”
Councilor Clint Alley expressed his concern that the TTC might not be able to run the Visitor Center within the confines of the funding restrictions it had placed on the Chamber of Commerce. “I just don’t want them, during the next budget session, to come back and say they need more money.”
“Every line item in the Town Tourism Committee budget is evaluated every year,” Green responded, “and Visitor Center operations will be part of that evaluation. I feel there are a lot of advantages. With change there is risk, but in the TTC’s track record for the last five years, since I have been on board, every line item has come in under budget. I work very carefully within the budget and try to maximize the results we get for every dollar spent.”
Green went on to explain that her plan calls for other TTC duties, such as mailing out The SUN’s Official Visitor Guide to tourists who request them, to be handled by Visitor Center staff, as well, further saving the town money.
Schanzenbaker questioned whether the TTC’s plan for using one full-time person and one part-time person to staff the Visitor Center would be enough to accomplish these extra duties while still providing the same level of service to walk-in patrons. He wanted to know how many people the Chamber of Commerce currently uses.
“That’s one of the questions we have,” Lattin countered. “What salaries are we paying for and what are their functions? I believe there are one and a half or two full-time equivalents, but who does what function and is it for the Visitor Center or the Chamber? There’s no clearly defined separation now, so what the Town Tourism Committee has proposed is just taking the Visitor Center and operating it. As it is now, some of the Visitor Center funding is going to support people who work part time for the Chamber and part time for the Visitor Center.”
“Last year at budget time,” Cotton clarified, “this group (town council) made a policy decision to move financial resources away from the Visitor Center and towards direct marketing. We said that’s what we want to do. We made a policy decision with our financing; the Chamber made a business decision, and that led us to a different management plan. That’s where we are today.”
During a Tuesday afternoon interview with SUN staff, Archuleta County Commissioner Michael Whiting, who has been out of town and had just heard about the town council decision, expressed concern. “It’s a bit of a surprise that they would make that move a week after our joint work session and not a word to us at the county. This will have an impact on our decision-making process. It’s an interesting idea and the Chamber was not opposed to it, but I didn’t detect any kind of a plan to get it done. A unilateral decision by the town to defund the Chamber comes as a surprise.”
However, at the Sept. 11 town council/BoCC joint work session to which Whiting referred, BoCC Chairman Clifford Lucero concluded, “We need to come up with a way for the Chamber to run it until May of next year, and then have the transition take place, if that’s the will of all of us. As long as we have a good process and a good plan to move forward, I think it’s great, as long as everyone is on board.”
During a subsequent phone interview with SUN staff, Chamber of Commerce Director Mary Jo Coulehan relayed the Chamber’s willingness to work with the TTC. “The decision has been made. How we handle the decision and move forward on behalf of the community is really important. We hope that the town will now be able to schedule meetings so we can help make that transition.
“As a business organization, we work with our business owners and teach them how to create business plans — how to work them out and not do everything at the last minute. We are trying to make this effort no different. Everyone has to have a plan in place if it is going to be successful. We wanted to make sure the town goes into it with their eyes wide open, knowing exactly what it takes to run a visitor center.”
Coulehan also outlined some of what has transpired so far. “We did write a letter to the town last year indicating that with continued reductions in funding we did not want to run the center. We indicated we would be amenable to running it if our funding would continue and we wanted to begin negotiations as soon as possible towards that goal. We started in February to see if we could set up some meetings.
“Unfortunately, the TTC was not able to meet with us in March because of spring break. Finally, by April, we were a little frustrated and wrote a letter to town council letting them know we had been trying to set up meetings with the TTC, but we weren’t getting a response. We finally started negotiations with the town itself in August. Our premise was that both organizations (the Chamber and the TTC) should start working together and planning for how to transition in order to make it as smooth as possible for the community.”
However, Coulehan admitted that no one from the TTC had contacted her yet to ask for help with developing a detailed business plan, and she went on to express concerns about the details of the operation once the TTC takes over.
“My understanding is that it’s not going to be completely run by technology. There are many visitor centers — Durango is one example; Glenwood Springs is another — where they are primarily run by technology. I do believe the TTC will continue to man the Visitor Center with volunteers and/or paid staff, and we hope so. We don’t think it was ever their intent to do away with the ambassadors or diplomats or whatever you want to call them, but to enhance the center with a little bit more technology.”
Besides the question of who would interact with the public — human or computer screen — Coulehan also wondered about the location.
“There is the possibility that they will rent this space back,” Coulehan said about the current Visitor Center location on Hot Springs Boulevard. “They could rent part of it; they could rent all of it. I don’t know, but I would think they are going to want most of the space if they are going to bring fulfillment back as part of it.
“As the facility exists right now, there isn’t really room to do the fulfillment. That’s one of the reasons we stopped doing it a couple years ago, because it was overrunning the center. There were boxes of visitor guides and mailing buckets everywhere and it was really unsightly and very time consuming. If they do bring that aspect of marketing back to the Visitor Center, they will need some space for storage.”
During his interview, Whiting characterized the document Green had presented at the joint work session as more of an outline, not a true business plan, complaining that it was only four pages long.
Whiting promised the BoCC would not consider giving any of its portion of the lodgers tax revenue to the TTC unless it was presented with a detailed budget and business plan. He wanted reassurance that the TTC would continue to operate the Visitor Center in such a way as to offer the same high quality of service the Chamber currently provides.
Whiting also indicated that the deadline for presenting such a plan and budget is fast approaching. County Administrator Jesse Smith will be presenting a draft budget to the BoCC in mid-October.
Green began Tuesday morning’s meeting of the TTC Budget subcommittee by saying, “We have a lot of unanswered questions and I’m not sure how much progress we can make today.” However, she also explained that she had to have a preliminary budget ready by the next day so it could be presented to town council at a meeting next Tuesday.
“I don’t want to make assumptions when it comes to what elected officials will or will not do,” Green said. “Whether or not this budget will work depends on what we find out within the next few weeks. The county decision is in mid-October. That’s two weeks after town council sees this budget. I have no problem telling council this is what it is at this moment until we know otherwise, and if we don’t get additional funds we will probably go through and cut out some from marketing, some from events, some from fish stocking, and so on.”
Both Whiting and Wadley confirmed that no discussion has taken place within the BoCC concerning how to spend the county’s share of lodgers tax dollars if it isn’t given to the TTC for the Visitor Center.