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St. Helens hires new tourism director with pledge to promote city as an undiscovered jewel

The face of St. Helens tourism will change.

At the Sept. 21, City Council work session, city leaders made a preliminary decision to hire Chris Finks as the new tourism director, replacing Amber Dennis, who will step down from that role on Sept. 30.

St. Helens Tourism Committee members chose not to extend Dennis' contract for another year. She has served as the tourism director since 2008. Councilor Phil Barlow was the lone dissenting vote, saying the tourism committee overstepped its boundaries in making a decision without first consulting City Council.

He said he was concerned about changing the focus of tourism and placating the city's hotel owners.

'You guys aren't talking about just changing the director but changing the direction [of tourism],' Barlow said, directing his comments at the rest of City Council.

Barlow participated in the meeting via speakerphone while traveling to Thailand. Barlow died of an apparent heart attack before he returned (See story page A1).

Finks is the owner of Finks Inc. Marketing and Communications, a Portland-area marketing company. He has previously worked for cities, including Portland, Lake Oswego and Long Beach, Calif., among others. He also lists Pamplin Media Group, owner of the South County Spotlight, as a former client.

Prior to Wednesday's decision, Finks called St. Helens an 'undiscovered jewel' that represents an opportunity from a marketing perspective because it remains relatively cost effective in terms of attracting events. 'Other communities have priced themselves out of the market,' he said.

The secondary candidate was Bruce Shoemaker, owner of Acti-Dyne, a St. Helens-based market-research company. The firm conducts research used for the planning of advertising and marketing campaigns, among other research work.

Prior to City Council's decision, Shoemaker declined to comment on his vision for tourism.

At the work session, Councilor Barlow said he was concerned about what he saw as a new emphasis on filling hotel rooms.

The city's Tourism Committee is funded by taxes placed on hotel rooms. In the last four years, tax revenue has decreased by 25 percent.

Because hotel owners are taxed to fund the tourism committee, they hold positions on the tourism committee: Eric Dahlgren, owner of St. Helens' Best Western Oak Meadows, sits on the committee as a hotel owner. Joe Kessi, co-owner of the St. Helens Village Inn Motel, is also a member of the committee.

'We always hear about how it's [the hotel owners'] money,' Barlow said, referring to Dahlgren and Kessi. 'There should be better understanding about whose money it is. It's the people's money.'

Councilor Patrick Martyn, who oversees the Tourism Committee, disagreed with Barlow's assessment, saying the Tourism Committee's focus would stay essentially the same. He added that hotel owners' concerns that the hotel room tax was not being spent on events that would bring visitors to town overnight has always been a legitimate concern.

Roni Bartlett, chair of the city's Tourism Committee, said committee members were impressed by all of the candidates.

Bartlett said there will likely only be minor changes to the tourism committee's direction with a new director in place. She hopes the committee is able to maintain and build upon what Dennis started when she created advertising campaigns for magazines such as Travel Oregon.

In addition to that, committee members want to focus more on attracting tournaments and events to the city, Bartlett said.

The city will not hire Finks until contract negotiations are complete.