City backs new tourism board
City officials are backing a push for greater accountability in how the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association spends public tourism promotion funds.”I think it is probably the number one item that I am paying attention to” on City Council, said Mayor Larry Emery.The chamber receives about a half-million dollars a year from a lodging tax to do tourism marketing under a contract with the city.”I would say at this time there is a very high degree of concern in regard to the tourism fund, that contract in specific, and how that’s all working,” Emery said.The chamber board is scheduled to approve creation of a new tourism board that would provide greater oversight over the fund’s spending. Two chamber board members, Steve Beckley and Linda Stoltzfus, are among the tourism industry representatives who have expressed concern over the possibility that the chamber may be spending too much on support costs versus tourism promotion, and may be using some of the tourism money for other chamber purposes.Tom Jankovsky, general manager at Sunlight Mountain Resort and a former chamber board member, said he believes the new tourism board will improve promotion of the industry.”I know we’ll be more efficient, and we’ll have more dollars for advertising,” he said.The chamber has faced occasional questions over its administration of the fund over the years.However, “Things have been brought forward to us that have raised our attention level there significantly, I would say to a higher level than it probably ever has been,” Emery said. He said he is legally precluded from discussing certain concerns, “although I would love to. I certainly will when I can.”Emery thinks the city’s long-standing friendly relationship with the chamber has resulted in less scrutiny of the tourism contract than should be occurring. But Emery said City Council is made to feel as if it is micromanaging each year when the contract comes up for renewal. When council asks how the money is spent, it’s hard to get a clear answer, he said.”We have a half-million-dollar contract we are awarding, and they should be answering our questions instead of making us feel we are overburdening them with details.”Emery said one concern he has is that the chamber uses the tax money to publish an annual magazine, yet also sells ads in that magazine. He said those revenues don’t go back into tourism promotion, and the chamber has resisted revealing how much it sells in ads.”I think the last time I was told was it was insignificant. But I wonder why we can’t get a number. We’ve asked for it.”He added, “If you’re using the tourism promotion moneys to raise revenues and the revenues don’t return to tourism promotion, that would seem like it’s not appropriate to me.”But Marianne Virgili, chief executive officer of the chamber, said no tax funds are used to produce the magazine. The chamber prints 120,000 copies, and the tourism fund pays only for distribution, she said. She said she doesn’t recall being asked how much the magazine generates in ad sales, but said it brought in about $40,000 last year. However, once the staffing costs of creating the magazine are figured in, it makes little money, she said. As for other information the city sought, Virgili said the chamber has handed over all its tourism fund accounting information and uses the same auditor the city uses.”There’s absolutely nothing to hide. Everything’s open,” she said.Jankovsky said some chamber employees have done both tourism promotion and other chamber work. He would like to see that changed “so there are no gray areas; so it’s cut-and-dry in how things are done.”Virgili said past concerns over the contract led to the stipulation that no more than 40 percent of the funds go for support costs rather than direct promotional programs.City manager Jeff Hecksel said the city bears some responsibility for loose contract language and inadequate oversight over the work done.”We don’t have a list of deliverables that are expected out of that contract,” he said. “I would not blame that on the chamber. That’s not the chamber’s fault.”Said Virgili, “It might be time to rework the contract, and that would be perfectly acceptable and appropriate, I think.”Jankovsky said questions surrounding the contract took on greater financial importance when the city increased its lodging tax rate. A 1.5 percent tax generated about $300,000 in 2000, but in 2001 the rate increased to 2.5 percent and brought in more than $500,000.Emery said interest by city officials in the matter isn’t related to the city’s general financial difficulties. “This is an issue in and of itself,” he said.The chamber contract is currently up for renewal. Emery said the city doesn’t want to take the contract away from the chamber, but only wants to make sure the tourism funds are spent as efficiently as possible.”If the chamber can do that, great. If they can’t, then we’ll have to do something else,” he said.He said city officials don’t want to hire staff to do tourism promotion “if we can get it done efficiently by outsourcing it.”Jankovsky said tourism promotion involves more than having the city or a private agency focus on marketing. The chamber has someone who can answer questions and “kind of finish the sale and get people to come to Glenwood Springs,” he said.Virgili said the city formerly had a separate central reservations and city tourism board, in addition to the chamber. Consolidating tourism promotion within the chamber created a model that other communities in Colorado are following, she said.”It’s not about intermingling of funds, it’s about efficient use of resources. We feel there’s a synergy in a tourism community like ours to have a chamber of commerce and a visitors bureau under one organization.”Virgili said the tourism fund pays for none off her salary, but probably half her work is tourism-related. If the chamber lost the city contract, “It would cause a redirection and that would be fine. We would deal with it,” she said.The chamber has nearly 700 members and operates on about an $800,000 budget, in addition to the tourism funds it administers, Virgili said.”We are a healthy organization,” she said.
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