Building up tourism in Columbia County is going well, although the Columbia County Tourism Initiative was denied their requested $10,000 contribution from county commissioners to continue to expand the project.
The Columbia County Tourism Initiative started in collaboration with Travel Portland and the Columbia County Economic Team (CCET) and launched in July of 2018 in order to encourage more tourism development in the county. The program involves a steering committee of 22 members from all over the county, representing both public and private entities and interests.
The committee’s request was denied at the Wednesday, Aug. 28 County Commission meeting, where Alison Hart, committee representative, presented on work the group has done in the past year.
Commissioner Alex Tardif initially motioned to approve Hart’s request, but Commissioner Henry Heimuller did not second the motion, thereby denying the request, saying he needed to see more documentation before he could allocate funds.
Before making the request, Hart, alongside Amanda Lowthian, representative from Travel Portland who manages the Regional Cooperative Tourism Program (RCTP), presented the county with the group’s accomplished tasks as well as tasks on their to-do list.
Some of the high points included making progress on three significant projects, made possible by an $85,000 grant from the RCTP.
One of those projects was creating a development plan for Prescott Beach, which Hart said is mainly focusing on growing overnight lodging in order to increase tax revenue. Another project was increasing trail development on the Crown Zellerbach Trail. The third project involved making a master plan for the St. Helens Recreation Area, located near Salmonberry Lake, which was a joint partnership between the county and the City of St. Helens.
Part of that master plan, according to Hart, involved an application for a regional trails project grant of $350,000, and the involved entities plan to go out for additional grant funding in order to grow that project.
“This is money that was not seen in the county before the initiative took place and we worked collaboratively with our partners to make that happen and we will continue to do so,” Hart said. “That’s one of the value propositions of the tourism initiative, is that we’re able to pull together all of our partners and come to agreement on the type of projects in which we should be participating that have county wide support based on our steering committee input.”
Other tasks the initiative has accomplished in the past year include finding funding outside of the RCTP, developing a strategic plan; engaging stakeholders and the community; forming partnerships and making a destination development plan, which they presented to the commissioners.
The destination development plan is what the steering committee identified as the most important areas for economic impact for tourism in the county.
These areas include downtown revitalization, building up lodging infrastructure, increasing wayfinding signage, infrastructure development, increasing access to cultural history and having visitor information available at all the main entry points in the county.
One of the aspects the destination development plan covered was the need for more stable funding. As both Hart and Lowthian explained, the $85,000 grant was a one-time grant. The initiative will now receive $28,000 per year as a pro rata share of the statewide transient lodging tax. The two said having a contribution from the county would form part of their stable funding.
Commissioner Heimuller said the county has already contributed to the tourism initiative, such as by having some personnel building out the Crown Zellerbach Trail.
“I want to be able to see the whole comprehensive package of what we address,” Heimuller said. “We have to be able to explain to all of the folks, not only the values of this, but the investment that we need to make and what we, the county are willing to [make].”
Commissioners also discussed the use of the lodging tax, and Heimuller said there were very few hotels in Columbia County and asked about the existing partnership between existing lodging providers outside of camping.
Lowthian answered that overnight lodging doesn’t just have to be hotels, but also things like rustic campgrounds with cabins.
At the end of the discussion, Commissioner Tardif moved to approve the $10,000 in funds.
“They can continue this work and continue to collect outside grants in dollars to help fund the projects that we want to do,” he said.
However, Heimuller did not second the motion and denied the request, saying, “I haven’t seen any documentation whatsoever.”
He said when he saw documentation, he might reconsider.