But will give Visitor Center operations more money
By Mark Reaman
During a sometimes blunt and occasionally awkward hourlong discussion Monday evening, Crested Butte town council members expressed no support to double the current Business License Fee (BLF) from $100 to $200 as requested by Crested Butte-Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce representatives. The Chamber representatives wanted the increase to help fund operational costs at the CB Visitor Center.
While expressing great frustration with the Chamber’s lack of response to town inquiries and the timing of the BLF increase request, the council did agree in principle to continue to contribute funding Visitor Center operations for 2024 and even increased the percentage of BLF revenue passed on to the Chamber from the town from 75% to 100%. That is expected to provide approximately $63,000.
The Chamber is facing a shortfall to run the Visitor Center located at Sixth Street and Elk Avenue. In an effort to cover the cost, the Chamber asked the town to double its business license fee to $200 for the approximate 630 licenses it issues annually. The hope was that the town would contribute $97,779 to its operation. That, combined with contributions from Mt. Crested Butte and the Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP), would cover the estimated $129,564 in operating expenses for 364 day a year coverage of the Visitor Center.
Town staff and council members were not shy in sharing concern over the request. In a memo to council, town manager Dara MacDonald said the timing was difficult since automatic license renewal notices are normally sent out through its automated MuniRevs system by November 1. They were able to suspend that process temporarily. MacDonald outlined the struggles over the previous two years of requests from the town for solid budget numbers and a specific plan on how Visitor Center operations could be improved. She said the Chamber had not adequately responded to the numerous requests for information. MacDonald informed the council that the staff did “not have confidence in either the management of their financials or the value of the service they provide for the community.”
The council held an executive session last month and agreed to discuss the potential of looking at other options for having another entity run the Visitor Center.
Chamber executive director Scott Clarkson apologized for the delays and said losing a full-time staff member and not replacing them to save money resulted in negative impacts and delayed responses.
With Chamber board chair Josh Futterman and board members Matthew Price and Kevin Koval at the meeting as well, Clarkson said the Chamber hoped to be the operator of the Visitor Center in 2024 and beyond.
Mayor Ian Billick made clear that while he wanted to see the Chamber and the Visitor Center succeed, he was beyond frustrated with the lack of response from the Chamber for specific information and the ignoring of the town’s explicit expectations.
“I personally think the Visitor Center is a good thing for the community,” Billick said. “It’s how we manage it.”
Clarkson said that 54 businesses responded to a recent Chamber survey over the matter and 67%, or 37 businesses, supported the idea of a BLF increase. According to town data, in 2022, business licenses generated approximately $63,000. The same is expected to come in this year. Town normally retains 25% of the fee to cover administrative costs which would normally result in a $47,000 contribution from town.
Billick noted 37 supportive responses was about a 5% response rate from the 639 businesses holding Crested Butte business licenses.
Councilmember Jason MacMillan said the request coming in November was poor timing and didn’t give people enough time to get their head around the idea.
“You are asking us to keep funding what has always been done,” said Billick. “For two years we asked for new ideas and context compared to other similar visitor centers and haven’t gotten that. How do we know if what you are doing is cost effective or meets best practices? What are other centers in Colorado doing?”
Clarkson said he hasn’t researched that, but the previous year was spent shoring up the Chamber budget. This coming year the plan is to expand services and perhaps add summer staff that could engage visitors outside the building. He said he has been talking to TAPP and the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association to have quicker and clearer communications with those organizations that could help steer visitors to appropriate places on any given day. Clarkson said the Chamber also sees potential alignment with the Crested Butte Museum and could see some sort of retail partnership with them as well. But the Chamber is hesitant about doing anything to compete with member businesses.
Clarkson said there has been some preliminary discussion about providing a coffee shop inside or outside the building, but cost issues to start it seemed prohibitive. Still, he said the board was willing to explore the options. Koval said the consensus was that a coffee shop would not raise the needed operational funds to pay for expenses.
“My take on it is that the building is a super valuable space in a prime location,” said Billick. “There is a lot of value there. I’m not sure anyone else would be interested in it but we’ve never asked, so how would we know?”
Councilmember Anna Fenerty asked Clarkson what he would say to those that didn’t want to increase the license fee.
“I’d say that we are all in the hospitality industry here whether we know it or not,” he responded. “We understand the license fee isn’t scalable, so the Secret Stash pays the same as a single masseuse. But everyone here basically is tied to the tourist industry, even a house painter who may not see it.”
Clarkson said there could be some benefits available to everyone who pays for a business license but aren’t members of the Chamber. “We are not opposed to figuring that out and we can look at things that wouldn’t water down the benefits of chamber members,” he said.
Fenerty asked if there was a Plan B if council did not provide funding.
Futterman said the Chamber would probably reduce its hours from 364 days a year to closer to 300 days.
Billick mentioned that because the Chamber had a long-term lease on the Visitor Center, the town could not simply remove them. But as part of the lease the building had to be open a certain number of days. If that didn’t happen, the lease would be broken and Billick said a clean break could be possible.
Billick admitted he was hesitant to raise a business tax or fee, especially in this case. “I have a real problem raising the business license cost at this point,” he said. “We asked for this conversation much earlier. I have a real problem with that. Maybe it is something to do next year but it seems ridiculous to me.”
“I like the relationship with the Chamber,” countered councilmember Gabi Prochaska. “But is it not worth looking at how other visitor centers operate and with what income streams?”
Billick again said the town has been asking for that for two years with no response.
“I am surprised at the lack of response from the Chamber after being asked for two years,” said MacMillan. “And given the response from the survey I’m not hearing 639 businesses support an increase in the fee.”
“That’s the challenge. The timing,” agreed councilmember Chris Haver. “As the landlord of the building and a public entity we need transparency of the operation. The Visitor Center is a critical part of the community, but this is last minute after two years of attempted discussions. It’s a promise that doesn’t come and that’s the frustrating part. If we were talking about this in August, I’d be for it in a heartbeat.”
Prochaska said doubling the business license fee didn’t “sit right” with her.
Councilmember Beth Goldstone agreed, and she wasn’t comfortable doing so, especially at the last minute. She did say she was comfortable continuing to provide them the BLF money “but no more on top of that.”
“We all value the Visitor Center,” said councilmember Mallika Magner. “We just want it to be accountable in its operations. We also understand that costs are going up.”
“I want both the Chamber and the Visitor Center to thrive,” emphasized Billick. “But I also want a compelling argument of what it is doing. That’s a basic foundational question that I’ve been asking for two years.”
Haver said he would be okay with contributing 100% of the business license fee to the Visitor Center “knowing that next year we will have a better discussion.”
Prochaska was on board with that percentage but wanted the Chamber to proactively search out models of successful visitor centers.
“While I feel backed into a corner and that’s not how I like to make decisions, I’m comfortable giving them 100% of the BLF,” said Fenerty.
Magner said the CB Visitor Center model needs fixing, but she too could support the suggested contribution.
“I’m a fan of the Visitor Center and Crested Butte being Crested Butte, it deserves a kick-ass Visitor Center and we don’t have that right now,” concluded MacMillan.
“We agree,” said Clarkson.
Given the council feedback, Billick suggested the staff craft a one-year funding agreement for the Visitor Center that provided 100% of the BLF for its operations and bring it back to the council for approval.