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Tourism needs funding to stay viable

Jane Stebbins

KEYSTONE – The terrorist acts of Sept. 11, the faltering economy, wildfires, drought and chronic wasting disease in elk and deer should all be clues to legislators to pump money into tourism and support the state’s small businesses.

That was the message delivered to members of the Colorado Restaurant Association, whose members hosted Colorado state Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald and State Rep. Carl Miller at a meeting in Keystone Thursday.

Miller said the two most significant issues the Legislature will tackle when it reconvenes next month likely will be the state budget and water – both of which are related to the success of the tourism industry.

“Funding tourism is not a state expenditure,” Miller said. “Funding tourism is a high-yield investment.”

Legislators, however, are apprehensive about proposing legislation to fund tourism, even though it’s been 10 years since voters decided to discontinue a sales tax that funded state tourism marketing, Miller said. In 1992, the sales tax brought $12.5 million to state marketing coffers. In one year, that went to nothing. Today, $5.5 million is spent to attract people to the state.

That, Fitz-Gerald said, compares to California’s and Hawaii’s tourism budgets of $48 million each.

“When you have to compete with someone spending $48 million and (you’ve) budgeted $5 million, you’re not anywhere near the program,” she said. “You’re never going to be able to compete.”

She acknowledged the difficulty in attracting repeat visitors, too.

“People seek new experiences,” she said. “People like to get a lot of notches on their belt from all the places they’ve visited. You have to find someone else to come and enjoy their first time. That costs money.”

“When you start losing people – they’ll go to, say, Utah and find a little niche there,” Miller said. “That’s some catching up we have to do.”

Legislators might be more eager to help reinstate funding if proponents can convince them of the value of every dollar spent. According to Miller, there is a return of $7 to $8 on every dollar spent on such marketing.

Fitz-Gerald isn’t as optimistic as Miller that the Legislature is starting to understand the relationship between money spent on tourism and the general health of the state’s economy.

“The entire economy is fueled on it,” she said. “We are so interrelated. Every single one of us lives and dies by whether or not we have people visiting.”

Chambers of commerce have known that since 1992 – and, more recently, since last summer as the national economy began to falter. Marketing plans were changed after Sept. 11, but Gov. Bill Owens’ statement that “all of Colorado” was on fire this summer is still being blamed for keeping some would-be visitors away.

Miller believes that’s a federal problem.

“We need to send a message to Congress that they need to better manage their forests,” he said. “One reason the Forest Service was established was to harvest forests to get a higher water yield.”

Once the major fires were extinguished, news of the drought took over the headlines. Miller said the solution lies in a 1,000-year aquifer beneath Denver.

“That’s 15 Lake Powells,” he said. “That’s 400 Blue Mesas (near Gunnison, Colorado’s largest lake). I’m not going to stand here and say it’d be cheap, but if there’s a 1,000-year supply, we should look into that. They cannot continue to come to the High Country to get their water.”

He doesn’t like the answers he gets from water officials on the Front Range, either.

“They say, “This is for future generations,'” Miller said. “Then, after Sept. 11, they said, “This is for national security.’ Now they’re saying “It’s too expensive.’ To me, that says there’s no defined use for the water.”

An ongoing challenge, Fitz-Gerald said, is the increasingly congested Interstate 70. The state has funded numerous Front Range highway projects but needs to redirect its efforts to the east-west corridor, or tourism will be further affected.

Another economic damper for which rural communities need to prepare is the effect of chronic wasting disease on revenue generated during the fall hunting season, which begins next month.

“Rural communities absolutely depend on the big-game season and the revenue it generates for the rest of the winter,” Miller said. “It’s a significant part of our economy. It will have an effect on our economy that’s hard to recover from.”

Both legislators said they would be willing to sponsor or support legislation next session that pumps money into tourism.

Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 228 or jstebbins@summitdaily.com.


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