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Tourism Association to expand focus beyond marketing

Bringing in businesses, students and sustainable tourism

By Mark Reaman

The Gunnison County commissioners have asked the Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association (TA) to add to its mission and use some Local Marketing District (LMD) funds to not just attract more tourists to the valley, but to also spend time developing a more diverse economic base, shoring up “sustainable tourism” efforts and helping to attract and retain students to Western State Colorado University.

The commissioners, who control the LMD budget, are working with the TA on a new contract that includes the expanded responsibilities. That contract should be finalized by the end of the year.

“The ballot language and state statute governing the LMD money essentially limit the funds to being used for events, marketing and economic development,” explained commissioner John Messner. “It can’t be used for capital purposes like parking lots and trailheads.

“The traditional philosophy of the TA has been to put ‘cheeks in seats’ and ‘heads in beds’ and they’ve been successful doing that,” Messner continued. “We’ve had feedback over the last year or two that while people appreciate the marketing efforts, we have certainly seen the impacts of that success. So now, we as a board are looking to see if there are other elements that we can use the LMD funds for. Economic development fits into the equation. We hope to eventually attract jobs with higher wage potential than the service jobs. And we think supporting Western and backcountry sustainability also makes sense. The TA is very good at storytelling and we want to expand the stories they tell. To be clear, the primary mission will remain helping to fill lodging and airline seats but we think we can use the money to look at broader purposes as well.”

TA executive director John Norton said the organization is excited to expand its mission. “The staff and board see this as a good direction for the county and are happy to help,” he said. “Especially in the area of business recruitment, we see this as a good fit with our skill set. We’ve had outreach to several business partners about the possibility of relocating businesses here. We’re planning to go to the major Outdoor Retailer show in Denver to meet manufacturers in the outdoor industry. We don’t quite know what kinds of twists and turns this journey will take. We’re partnering with the county, the ICElab, and the city of Gunnison. Not one of us has all the answers.”

Like Messner, Norton said just because the mission of the TA is expanding, the main mission does not go away. “The primary mission will remain maintaining or building lodging revenues,” he said. “And the secondary missions would be broadening our economic base and also increasing our efforts with sustainable tourism. We’ve been pretty active in that area already and our activity will most likely increase. Our signage program and our signage messages were the precursors of Mountain Manners. We have more signs going in this summer. Our TrailQuest game/app has already begun spreading mountain bike riders to less frequently used trails. We just had our first Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation [STOR] committee meeting, so we are just beginning to explore our role.

“We can’t spend monies on capital, so we know we’re not going to be building bathrooms and parking areas, as badly as those are needed at some of our trailheads,” Norton continued. “But it makes sense that we can try to attract outdoor-related businesses to a place that is really all about the outdoors.”

“The primary mission is still to get visitors here,” said Messner. “But it makes sense right now to use some LMD money to support business in the county. We also want to see how they can support sustainable tourism and co-market with Western. Attracting and maintaining students is a very strong economic element here. That has a lot to do with storytelling. Frankly, Western is a big if not the biggest economic driver in the county so to help them makes great sense.”

The LMD is funded through a lodging tax and took in about $1.8 million last year. Not all of that goes to the TA but most does. This shift in direction does not have a hard dollar number or percentage figure associated with it and both the TA and the commissioners are fine with that.

“There is no specific set-aside of monies. One reason the TA has been successful is our nimbleness. We’re always moving monies around to seize the best opportunities,” explained Norton. “But it’s safe to say that we’ll make a serious effort with our partners in the valley to make something happen in economic development, and that we will spend money as well as time doing it. Now, we can’t take monies from our budget and time from our staff in these important areas without having less money and less focus on tourism. So we’ll keep an eye on lodging occupancies and remain alert to fumbling the tourism ball.”

“We didn’t want to hamstring the TA because they’re very nimble with how they work,” agreed Messner. “So we are not setting aside a specific amount or percentage of the LMD funds that has to go to the new efforts. The idea is to use the efficiencies within the TA. For example, when they go to the Outdoor Retailers Show in Denver we want them to send the message that we are open for business over here. The story is that outdoor industry businesses would work well here. That is logical.”

Norton said the economic study commissioned by the Red Lady Coalition showed the importance of tourism to the valley. “One thing we discovered, maybe not surprisingly, is that mining wouldn’t just add to our economy but would cut the legs out of tourism and our attractiveness as a valley,” he noted. “And we also found that tourism is a pretty sustainable economic driver. So neither the TA nor the STOR group has plans to turn our backs on tourism, while we recognize that we need to manage better. We like the new direction from the commissioners and plan to do our best to see the vision through.”

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