Room tax revenue on pace for 20 percent increase over 2011 budget year

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON The Maritime Heritage Festival, which drew crowds last summer, is slated to return to St. Helens in late July. Tourism revenue in St. Helens is on track to return to levels not seen since the housing market bust and downturn in industrial operations at Boise Inc. in 2008.

Based on a city trend report, revenue generated from a transient overnight tax at hotels and motels is expected to top $85,000 by the close of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Real lodging tax revenue from the first four months of this budget cycle starting in July show the city has had a 20 percent increase in overnight stays versus last year. Should that pace continue, the final tally could exceed budget expectations by a few thousand dollars.

Last year transient tax revenue was $74,120, up from a five-year low of $65,407 in 2010-11.

Eric Dahlgren, an owner of Best Western Oak Meadows Inn in St. Helens and a member of the city’s 12-member Tourism Committee, attributes the rise in city tourism to staffing changes last year that resulted in the hiring of new tourism director, Chris Finks, and an upward turn in the economy.

Though the city report did not include final figures for November, Dahlgren said overnight stays at the Best Western for that month were some of the strongest he has seen.

“I think the economic times just got a little better,” he said.

Transient tax revenue is a main driver for financing tourism promotions and events, Finks said. Plus, the revenue, though not large, can be used as leverage for matching grants and to tap other potential pots of money to bolster St. Helens’ presence as a visitor destination. Other possibilities include using the money to build a convention center that could draw tourists, and roughly $300,000 of transient tax dollars are held in reserve for that purpose.

Branding for life

Tourism has been a steady topic of conversation among decision-makers in St. Helens who envision the city transitioning from its identity as an industrial stronghold to one that places more reliance on outside visitors to fill its retail shops and restaurants.

As a goal, city tourism planners are projecting to bring at least 100 more overnight visitors to St. Helens in the 2013 budget year than visited the city in 2012.

This year marked the second for Portland Pirates Festival organizers, who came to St. Helens in 2011 after being priced out of the event’s historical location at Cathedral Park in Portland. It was the first for the Maritime Heritage Festival, also traditionally a Portland event, that saw high-profile attractions such as the Sternwheeler Portland and waterskiing shows draw crowds in July.

“We’ve captured some great events,” said Finks, who is getting ready to start his second year on contract to the city to work as its tourism director.

Finks, a member of the Maritime Heritage Cultural Coalition that organizes and sponsors the annual maritime festival, said he believes St. Helens is now positioned to engage in real dialogue about building brand identity for the city.

“When you lose 125 jobs in a community the size of St. Helens, you hear it and you feel it,” said Finks, referencing Boise Inc.’s announcement in October to shut down its St. Helens operations by the end of this year. “You can’t just sit and wait. You have to do something.”

As a small town in Oregon with an industrial legacy, St. Helens isn’t alone in its current efforts to rebrand itself. Finks pointed to Bandon, where close of its tourists-friendly cheese manufacturing plant in 2002, which had been purchased by Tillamook County Creamery Association in 2000, struck a blow to the local economy. As announced in May, a developer is in the process of opening a new specialty cheese facility, playing on the city’s economic culture and branded image.

“They are looking at what they are going to do next, what is their brand, what is the engine around it?” Finks said.

In St. Helens, marquee events — Pirates, Maritime and Halloweentown festivals — occurring this past year fit within the embryonic branded framework for St. Helens, Finks said. He added, however, that it’s going to take the efforts of all partners to agree on a branded image and then to cultivate and promote it to outside audiences as a component for changing potential visitors’ and investors’ perceptions of St. Helens.

Dahlgren, who is engaged in many other business ventures, said that has even been a problem when he has sought bank financing for St. Helens ventures.

“They ask, ‘Why St. Helens?’” he said. “I see one component of the tourism thing is to sort of promote an awareness of St. Helens and to build a positive image of this area, especially South County.”

“It adds a piece to the puzzle,” he said.

Finding an anchor

This year has been tough for many St. Helens businesses. Several in Olde Towne near the Columbia River waterfront have folded within the last few months.

Finks and Dahgren point to the lack of an anchor business or attraction as an ongoing challenge for the city’s small businesses.

“There’s got to be something for them to do,” Dahlgren said.

“You’ve got to have a big anchor, or it doesn’t work otherwise,” Finks said.

Finks has been in discussions with members of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde to potentially collaborate in the construction of a maritime heritage center on at least a portion of the 16.9-acre Boise Cascades riverfront property south of Columbia View Park, which is currently for sale. Finks said those discussions are “going in the right direction,” and added that other rejuvenation tools, such as urban renewal tax incentives, should also be explored.

As for next year, the larger festivals — including Pirates, Maritime and Halloweentown — are expected to return, including tweaks to boost attractiveness based on feedback from the latest round of events. There is also a focused event expected in spring that will bring outside business interest to the city, Finks said, though details are not yet being released. He said outreach to smaller groups as visitor potentials is also a priority, and that for these initiatives to be a success it’s going to take all groups working together.

“You have to trust, and you have to work together. Period,” he said.

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