TTC Takes a Hard Look, Part One
Bill Hudson | 10/24/08
The Town Tourism Committee met on Wednesday in the vacant Teen Center Game Room at the Community Center.  I can’t say it was a result of the location, but in many ways, I found the meeting to be more invigorating and lively than some other TTC meetings I’ve attended.  I enjoy a meeting where real ideas are discussed in an honest, give and take manner, and I found that happening on Wednesday at this meeting, chaired by a stand-in chairperson: business owner and web designer Marcy Mitchell.  For the past couple of years, the TTC has been under the guidance of research consultant and Town Council member Angela Atkinson, who announced her resignation from the TTC board in August but who continued to chair the next couple of meetings.  This was my first experience of someone else chairing a TTC meeting.

And since we’re on the subject of Marcy Mitchell, let’s begin the story at the end — the end of the meeting, that is.  The final discussion, actually one of the least lively of the evening, entailed selecting a new chairperson to officially assume Atkinson’s leadership role as Committee Chair.  After only minimal discussion, that job went to current TTC Treasurer Bob Hart.

Bob Hart is the owner, with his wife Mary, of two Pagosa businesses: Hart Construction, one of the leading construction companies in the county, and Hart’s Rocky Mountain Retreat, a complex of elegant, Colorado-style cabins tucked into the pines about two miles south of downtown on Highway 160.  As such, the Harts are key players in Pagosa’s two key industries: tourism and second home construction.

On the TTC board — at least at the meetings I have had the pleasure to attend — Bob Hart has consistently been the primary voice of fiscal responsibility, which is perhaps a fitting tendency for a Treasurer.  Despite Hart’s warnings, however, the TTC — which is funded by about $350,000 in annual Lodgers Tax revenues collected by the Town of Pagosa Springs — has already overspent its 2008 budget by about $130,000, leaving the organization with almost no reserves for 2009.

We’ll get deeper into the 2009 budget in Part Two.  That’s a story in itself.

Marcy Mitchell, who had been holding the gavel during Wednesday’s meeting, was elected Vice Chair.  Mitchell originally came to the TTC board as a volunteer on a website design subcommittee.  The TTC and the Pagosa Springs Chamber of Commerce had begun work on a completely new — and rather expensive — tourism website, two years ago, and after a year of complications and struggles, still did not have a functioning website.  Mitchell, who does business consulting as well as running her website design business, MTECH, came on board a volunteer TTC subcommittee to help work through some of the pressing website issues.  She later joined the full board.

Mitchell, from my experience, was another of the more outspoken members of the TTC board — one of the few who consistently urged fiscal responsibility, especially in discussions about special event funding.

The TTC also added a new member to its board — prominent real estate broker Jim Smith.  Smith has been on the cutting edge of local real estate marketing for many years; he was one of the first Pagosa realtors to make extensive use of the internet, and his popular community website, Pagosa.com, has consistently been the most visited website in Pagosa Springs.  Smith also publishes several other real estate oriented websites and a full color community real estate magazine.  Both the magazine and the websites focus largely on promoting Pagosa’s scenic and cultural attractions — as well as, of course, its real estate.  

The TTC has been a “work in progress” since its creation about two years ago, following voter approval of a new Town Lodgers Tax to be collected from short term lodging stays within the Town limits.  As I mentioned, that tax has been generating about $350,000 in annual revenues, and the Pagosa Springs Town Council is ultimately responsible for spending those revenues expressly to support tourism.  The Council decided to establish  new committee to oversee the spending process, and the result was the Town Tourism Committee, to be composed of representatives from the public and from several key organizations, including the Pagosa Springs Lodgers Association, the Builders Association, and the Chamber of Commerce.  In a sense then, the TTC was an umbrella organization consisting of several existing organizations — empowered with a $400,000 budget, and with no track record.

One of the first decisions made by the new board was to hire a full time Executive Director — rather than going with the Town Council’s original concept of a part time “special projects coordinator.”  The person selected for that Director’s job was Dianne Calderon, a tourism director from Solvang, California — another town with tourism as its main industry.  Calderon continues to serve in that constantly evolving position.

The TTC had other issues to decide as well.  Prior to the arrival of the Town’s Lodgers Tax, a 1.9 percent Archuleta County Lodgers Tax had already been in place and had been funding a County Tourism Committee.  The lion’s share of that County tax had long been designated to fund the downtown Visitors Center, adjacent to the Springs Resort and the Spa Motel just over the 4th Street bridge on Hot Springs Boulevard.  The Visitors Center, in turn, had long been operated by the Pagosa Springs Chamber of Commerce — which had also been the primary source of tourism information delivered by mail and telephone.  The County Tourism Committee — the CTC — also funded certain tourist-related organizations and special events.

With the arrival of the Town’s new tourism board, the lines of tourism industry promotion became suddenly blurred.  The County Tourism Committee continued to help fund the Visitors Center in its long established “hands off” manner, leaving key decisions in the hands of the Chamber of Commerce — but the volunteer TTC board immediately made known its desire to get more actively involved than the CTC had ever been in the operations of the Visitors Center and especially in the operations of a joint TTC-Chamber website.  As noted, that new website was over a year in development — and apparently continues to have regular problems, according to a report delivered by Calderon at Wednesday’s meeting. 

The new website was designed to provide extensive tracking information to the Chamber and the TTC —where visitors are coming from and what success is being shown by various marketing approaches, among other data — and the companies which developed the site used a programming language called Cold Fusion, a popular database-oriented language often used in big commercial web projects, but unfortunately perhaps, a language with which no local web designers are familiar.  This has left the TTC and the Chamber with a site that cannot be maintained using local providers.  Apparently, a sizable chunk of the TTC budget has been allotted to website design and maintenance.

Here at the Daily Post, we committed to an internet based news magazine model because the delivery and production costs — compared with, say, a printed weekly newspaper — were incredibly low.  At the same time, the reach of an online news source was global and continuous — making our cost-per-customer-view extremely reasonable.

The Chamber of Commerce and the TTC also realize that the web is the future of tourism marketing — as do many other businesses in Pagosa — and the discussion at the Wednesday meeting made it clear that future marketing efforts will be migrating away from print delivery toward more web based delivery.  This will presumably increase the financial effectiveness of TTC and Chamber marketing efforts.  It was perhaps unfortunate that the two organizations made the decision, two years ago, to build their expensive new website using a database design that must be outsourced — for any major updates and maintenance — to non-local web businesses.

But judging from Wednesday’s meeting, the ongoing website problems are not the biggest issues facing the TTC.  A much more intriguing problem, at the moment, is the creation of a 2009 budget.  After two years of hard work and expanded marketing efforts by the TTC — and after the expenditure of about $1 million in Lodgers Tax revenues — the TTC is looking forward to a continuing decline, apparently, in Pagosa tourism.

The main question for the 2009 budget is: how big a decline?

Read Part Two
 
   

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