County declines marketing money

Some decry ‘overdose of tourists’

Grand County Council Member Jaylyn Hawks listens to public comment during a recent meeting with San Juan officials. She was in the majority of a 4-3 vote earlier this month when the council declined a request to apply for a $250,000 tourism marketing grant. Photo by Doug McMurdo

A new expression has entered the lexicon and it isn’t favorable to a region that relies almost completely on a tourism economy: Don’t get Moabed. That’s the phrase Grand County Council Chair Evan Clapper used while explaining why he and three other council members voted not to pursue a $250,000 grant for a new markets advertising campaign.

Elaine Gizler was philosophical when asked about the council’s decision, a rejection of her request to approve a State Office of Tourism marketing project designed to attract visitors from Chicago and Austin, Texas.

“Well, I think it was unfortunate, but it’s good news for some other county in Utah who applies because that money goes right back into the pot,” Gizler, the executive director of the Moab Area Travel Council, told The Times-Independent.

On Tuesday, June 17 the joint meeting of the council and the Moab Area Travel Council Advisory Board started heated and ended on a somewhat mellower note. It was informally agreed the travel council would reduce advertising funding to new markets at an as yet undetermined percentage when it begins the annual budgeting process next month.

The gap that couldn’t be closed Tuesday is one of perspective. Grand County Council members made it clear they “hit the pause button” June 4 largely at the request of residents, and that the annual request could be revisited next year. But members of the travel council advisory board particularly chair Howard Trenholme; vehemently insist Grand County seeks to end all spending related to tourism marketing.

The joint meeting was more than a chance to air grievances, however, and the travel council advisory board asked for and received what all seemed to agree was badly needed direction from the county council.

The $250,000 grant would have required a $25,000 match from the county, but that was not what concerned four of the seven council members, led by Chair Evan Clapper, on June 4. “I think we sit out this year,” he said that day. “If visitation slows down we can do it again next year.”

The silence that followed was as uncomfortable as it was lengthy.

After a brief discussion, Council Member Rory Paxman made a motion to support the grant and member Curtis Wells offered the second.

Council members siding with Clapper were Vice Chair Terry Morse, Mary McGann and Jaylyn Hawks. None of them had any doubt Gizler and the Travel Council’s efforts would be a smashing success – and that was the concern. “It seems premature when we’re struggling with what to do with the visitors we do have,” said Hawks.

Morse was even more blunt: “We pretty much have an overdose of visitors.” He would have liked to have seen the proposal earlier than June 4 with the deadline to apply falling on June 13, and added, “We’re being loved to death.”

McGann mentioned the proverbial elephant in the room when she said, in reaction to local attitudes toward Moab’s robust tourism economy, “I don’t think people want to see us expand marketing.”

Council Member Greg Halliday sided with Paxman and Wells. He said bringing in tourists from Illinois and Texas might equate to more air passengers to the area and rental cars once they got here.

Paxman said nothing other than making the motion in favor of pursuing the grant. Wells said it would be unfortunate to miss out on the opportunity. The fallout of the vote, said Gizler, would land most heavily on Grand County’ business community.

Moab Area Travel Council Advisory Board member Laici Shumway listens to a comment during Tuesday’s joint meeting with the Grand County Council. Photo by Doug McMurdo

Gizler has collected nearly $1 million in State Office of Tourism grants over the past four years, with much of that funding going to advertise Moab in southern California, a market that has yielded huge results for Grand County, but has become, she said, “crowded and expensive.”

The idea to shift the marketing focus to the greater Chicago area and Austin was not made in a vacuum. She said tourists from those locations would likely increase enplanements at Canyonlands Field, boost the rental market for cars, recreational equipment and other goods, and that they would stay longer. United Airlines is hubbed in Chicago, so getting from there to Denver to Canyonlands would increase the number of passengers because the cost would be “much more affordable.”

Grand County Clerk-Auditor Chris Baird did not take a position on the grant request, but by virtue of his county post he was compelled to advise council members of a precipitous drop in TRT revenue growth in recent years.

Baird in an email exchange told The Times-Independent that TRT money grew roughly 12 percent annually in 2016-2017, then dropped down to 7.7 percent in fiscal year 2017-2018, “which is a rather dramatic drop in growth for one year,” said Baird last week. He added, “And 7.7 percent growth is also one of the lowest growth rates since the tax was instituted.”

Again, Baird made it clear he was not commenting on the 4-3 vote. “I don’t bring this up to make an argument against the action that the council took,” he wrote. “However, I think that it is my job to inform the council of the possible financial implication of their actions.”

Trenholme at the joint meeting said his business has seen a downturn after a robust spring. He also noted overnight lodging occupancy rates are at 65 percent, which would seem to undermine the notion that Moab has more tourists than it could handle.

“The community is feeling the stresses of tourism,” said Clapper adding those people are “publically telling us to slow down.”

County Council member Wells defended his peers. While Wells voted in favor of pursuing the grant on June 4, two weeks later he told travel council advisory members that he appreciated the work they put into the position, but that they were there to advise the county council, which could accept or deny recommendations. “You’re here for us, not the other way around,” said Wells. Having said that, Wells and other council members said they appreciated the hard work done by Gizler, her staff and the advisory board.

Council Member Mary McGann voiced concerns over the impact on local resources, such as law enforcement, EMS, search and rescue operations and solid waste. McGann also noted tourism growth over the past decade is probably at 20 percent, including a 12 percent increase over last year.

“They feel like they’re being torn apart,” said a council member.

“What do you tell the investors who have put millions into the community,” asked a visibly angry Trenholme. “Oh, by the way, we’re going to take away your marketing money.”

Trenholme said a precipitous drop in Transient Room Tax revenue would force the county to raise taxes, something Clapper said some residents have asked for in lieu of marketing tourism in letters sent to the council. No discussion on taxes has been held, at least in a public meeting.

Trenholme also acknowledged that there might be more tourists than can be absorbed when he noted the “tainted experience” many have when it takes an hour for diners to get a table. He blamed it on poor service.

Advisory board member Laici Shumway of the Moab Chamber of Commerce said the grant application request that was denied was not designed to “open the doors wider,” but to narrow the focus and be “more selective as to where we market.”