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Consultant lays out caveats for citys tourism potential

report -- Expert outlines obstacles for Forest Grove in its efforts to bring visitors to town
by: Chase Allgood, At a meeting last week, consultant Roger Brooks went over the steps he feels the city needs to take, such as avoiding confusing street signs, to attract visitors to Forest Grove.

In the eyes of a visitor, Forest Grove has some charming attributes - but only if you can find them.

From the perspective of a business booster, the city has tremendous opportunities for tourism - but only if someone takes the lead in improving the downtown and marketing it.

That was the message Roger Brooks, an expert in tourism, delivered last week after spending three days in the city. Brooks was hired by the Forest Grove Chamber of Commerce to provide a candid analysis of the city's ability to attract visitors.

What Brooks found was a downtown that has a lot of potential and a host of problems, including a confusing grid of one-way and two-streets that lack signs directing visitors to the downtown, public parking and other amenities.

For example, he noted that there is a sign on 19th Avenue directing motorists to turn left on Elm Street to find to the Chamber of Commerce, but no sign directing them to turn left when they get to Pacific Avenue, where the office is located a half-block west. As a result, he said, although the chamber has a good visitor information center, people looking for it may end up halfway to Banks.

'You've got some signs out there but you don't connect the dots,' he said. 'You leave people stranded out there.'

An even bigger obstacle, he said, was the fact that it is difficult for would-be visitors to obtain information about the city. The chamber, he noted, charges $8 to mail out information packets, a practice he strongly discouraged. And, while both the chamber and the city have some visitor information on their Web sites, neither offers a comprehensive look at what's available for guests.

In his public presentation last Wednesday evening, Brooks made it clear that he thinks it's worth fixing the problems and pushing tourism, which he claims has grown to a $650 billion-a-year industry in this country.

'The idea is to get people come into Forest Grove, spend their money and then go home,' said Brooks, whose Washington-based firm, Destination Development, has helped promote and develop tourism in places such as Sisters and Jackson Hole.

Brooks said there are three ways to snare tourism dollars: Getting people to stop for a short visit when they stumble upon a town on their way to somewhere else; getting people to stay in town while they explore the surrounding area; and getting people to see a town itself as a destination.

The difference, he said, is huge. The average person spends $27 if they happen upon a town while driving. That figure, he said, jumps to $220 when they visit the town itself and end up eating and sleeping inside the city limits.

Brooks said that while Forest Grove has many of the amenities visitors want, the city doesn't do a good job of promoting them to people who've never been here before.

To create a downtown that will attract visitors and keep them around long enough to part with their cash, Brooks offered a wide range of suggestions, which he'll include in a formal report to the chamber. Among his ideas:

•City signs - The city, he said could do a better job using signs to welcome people to town and direct them to parks, shopping areas and parking.

•Merchant signs - Visitors' first impression of a city is through their windshield. As a result, retailers should put out signs that hang out over the sidewalks. 'I'm not going to be turning my head while I drive to see a business name on the side of a building.'

•Kiosks - Once people get out of their car, they need help finding their way around. 'As visitors,' he said, 'if we can't find it, we're gone.'

•Training - Retailers, chamber volunteers and others who may be the first people visitors meet need to be made aware of what's available in town and where to find it. 'I asked several people where I could eat in Forest Grove,' Brooks said. 'They all directed me to Beaverton and points east.'

•Food - While previous studies have shown the need for a high-end restaurant downtown, Brooks said the existing cafés could do a better job of creating a welcoming atmosphere. 'I judge restaurants by their curb appeal,' he said. 'I didn't see any restaurants that really pulled me inside.'

•Streets - Brooks said he found the city's mix of one-way and two-way streets confusing.

•Bathrooms - 'You need to have public restrooms and let people know where they are,' said Brooks. And, the city should locate them in places where people can spend money.

Overall, Brooks said, he thinks Forest Grove can do a good job of attracting visitors, at least from the Portland metropolitan area.

But, he said, in addition to taking relatively small steps, such as improving signs, city leaders need to decide what they want to promote.

Is Forest Grove a hub for biking, hiking and boating? Is it a base for exploring wineries? Or can it become a destination town with a historic shopping and arts district?

'You have a great downtown and the hidden gems that could make someone take an hour's drive,' said Brooks. 'But you're not promoting them. It's just a matter of finding that focus.'