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Leaders talk support for info centers

KIM MARQUIS

BRECKENRIDGE – Frisco Mayor Bernie Zurbriggen’s pitch to local government leaders to help save the financially beleaguered Frisco Visitor Information Center (VIC) wasn’t met with enthusiasm because nobody sees the business community taking the initiative first.Zurbriggen, whose town financed the center’s operations for the past month with up-front cash from the Colorado Barbecue Challenge, asked a gathering of the Mayors, Managers and Commissioners group if members would consider lending a hand.Government leaders were reluctant to come to the rescue, wondering why the business community wasn’t engaged. Some leaders questioned the validity of the Summit Chamber of Commerce’s existence and were seemingly put off that they weren’t notified of the VIC’s financial trouble before the doors were closed in Frisco.The chamber and the VIC board are separate entities, but the chamber manages the VIC centers.The discussion revolved around not just the VIC, but also the future of the chamber and how it, too, would be funded.Support came from Commissioner Bill Wallace and Dillon town manager Jack Benson. Silverthorne Mayor Lou DelPiccolo, Breckenridge town manager Tim Gagen and Commissioners Gary Lindstrom and Tom Long were not supportive of providing government funds to fix the problem. Gagen and the commissioners want to see what the business community suggests.”We should be players, but not saviors if other parts of the community benefiting from the (VIC) are not stepping up,” Gagen said.Where’s the business community?”What is the business community doing?” Gagen asked. “They’re not players; I don’t see them stepping up. Instead, they come to us to say what to do.”Chamber board president Loren Stone was not notified the issue was on the agenda for Thursday. He said on Friday that the chamber’s members are concerned about the VIC’s future.”We’ve had a lot of business members come up to us, for instance at the Barbecue Challenge, in support of the VIC and chamber,” Stone said. Lindstrom, who no longer is a commissioner now that he won appointment as state representative, supported the VICs as a resource for tourists, but did not suggest the leaders make a move to keep them open. “Where’s the backing from business?” he asked. “If we were hearing a loud public outcry then we’d probably need to do something,” he said. “But I suggest we just sit back. I don’t know whether people care. I don’t think it’s an issue.”Lack of communication?DelPiccolo questioned why the community wasn’t notified of the financial situation before the VIC closed the Frisco location.”It sounds like they’re putting things up for ransom,” he said. “It’s not a friendly act.”Other towns fund the VIC with annual contributions of $5,000, but Silverthorne does not participate.Long also questioned why local governments weren’t notified.”For two years they’ve been eroding away their funds, but we didn’t hear anything,” Long said. “When the boat’s leaking you at least start bailing.”Zurbriggen responded that the VIC’s financial troubles were not a surprise to those familiar with the operation. Stone later said he didn’t know why community leaders did not know about the Frisco closure.”Each town has an appointed seat on the chamber board. One of the roles of that seat is to relay that information back to their team,” Stone said. “The board packets we distribute discuss those topics. I have no reason to believe this wasn’t happening.”The VICs cost $110,000 annually to operate. Most of the money pays employees that answer questions and hand out maps and other information to thousands of tourists that visit the locations every year. Financial difficulties began a few years ago when Summit County government reduced its annual contributions by $20,000, from $30,000 a year to $10,000. The Breckenridge Ski Resort, which had been contributing $6,500 annually, did not fund the VICs this year. Arapahoe Basin Ski Area does not participate.A drop in chamber memberships also contributed to the problem. Thirty percent of annual chamber dues is funneled into the VICs. The chamber and the VIC are separate organizations with different nonprofit status and separate boards. Still, their roles are intertwined and in the eyes of the community, they are a single entity.When community funding began dropping off, the chamber subsidized the VICs, which now owes the chamber about $50,000.What’s the VIC’s role? Where goes the chamber?Commissioner Bill Wallace said the information centers provide a service to the community, not just a benefit to businesses. “I’d like to not have people wandering around aimlessly trying to figure out where they’re going,” he said.”To me, this has always been about being hospitable,” Zurbriggen said. “In many cases, it’s the first thing people see when they arrive in a community.”While there seemed to be support for providing tourists information, the leaders’ level of support for the chamber was not as clear. Four other chambers do business in the county, plus the ski areas do their own substantial marketing.DelPiccolo, for example, said he was not sure of “the real purpose” of the chamber. But Benson, who represents Dillon, a town that like Silverthorne does not have its own chamber organization, wanted local governments to support it.”Chambers in other communities are a viable and important entity,” he said. “For it to not be functioning in Summit County is really problematic. It kind of reminds me of the Summit Housing Authority; they have an interesting mission but they just seem to limp along in terms of funding.”The chamber approached county elected officials a few years ago asking for a ballot question on funding through a new tax, but Commissioner Lindstrom said it was dropped because it didn’t seem fair to the board to support only one of the area’s chambers.Stone defended the chamber’s role in the community.”Everyone needs to realize that commerce in Summit County involves everyone from the small businesses to the big businesses,” he said. “The chamber helps everyone and acts as a mediator between (them). The organization presents an opportunity to bring in everyone. We’re the glue of the county.”In addition, Stone said, the chamber provides opportunities for small companies to garner referrals and network. It operates an informational Web site, publishes a “Best of Business” directory and produces 160,000 copies of “Experience the Summit,” a vacation planner that is distributed nationwide. It also offers member-to-member discounts, and discounts on business needs like insurance policies and payroll services. No decisions were made at Thursday’s meeting. Zurbriggen said afterward he recognized a few community leaders were questioning the validity of the organizations.”Each town can do their own thing but we’re not going to make a very good presentation to the world that way, and it will end up costing us a lot more,” he said.Kim Marquis can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 249, or at kmarquis@summitdaily.com.


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