Tourism seeks cash infusion

Mesa Verde Country plans foray into digital marketing

As Oliver Twist once put it, "Please, sir, I want some more."

Tourism officials came, cap-in-hand, before the Board of County Commissioners on Monday. Only instead of gruel, they were petitioning for extra money to market Montezuma County as a premier tourist destination.

Bruce Lightenberger, new chairman of Mesa Verde Country's board of directors, made the case that dollars promoting tourism are dollars well spent. They attract more out-of-town visitors, he argued, and encourage those visitors to stay here longer, all the while shelling out money at local businesses. He likened it to a multiplier effect.

The county is already contributing $107,000 to four tourism-related entities in 2013: $45,000 to Mesa Verde Country, $30,000 each to the Mancos and Dolores chambers of commerce and $2,000 to the Cortez Cultural Center. The money comes from lodgers tax - a surcharge tacked on to overnight accommodations, like hotel rooms and bed and breakfasts.

For its part, the city of Cortez is giving about $130,000 worth of lodgers tax, as well as a second $163,500 sum derived from sales taxes - all to Mesa Verde Country. Both of those contributions happen every year, said City Manager Shane Hale, although the exact amounts vary.

Even so, Lightenberger asked the county to scrounge up another $50,000 from its coffers, and potentially more down the road. He said Mesa Verde Country plans to make a concerted marketing strategy shift this year, away from printed materials and toward digital platforms like Internet advertising and cellphone apps. However, he could not ensure that the extra money would be spent on that purpose specifically. Some of it could pay administrative costs.

Commissioner Larry Don Suckla was, in theory, supportive of the strategic shift, citing predictions that 75 percent of advertising will be seen on mobile devices within three years. Before committing to any funding, though, Suckla wanted more information about how it would be spent.

Fellow commissioner Steve Chappell said any added tourism funding would be a tough sell among his constituents. Unlike Cortez, the county has no sales tax revenue to draw from, only property tax.

"It's important to show the value (of this) to landowners. This would be their tax money," he said. "We don't have (a county) sales tax. That makes it hard to spend money in this direction unless county residents see a benefit."

Lightenberger could not offer concrete assurances of a return, but was adamant that investing in tourism pays off.

"When tourism does well, those dollars rattle around the community more than once," he said, adding that he doesn't want Montezuma County to fall behind its regional competitors. "If we don't push this collectively, as a city and county, Durango sure as heck will. Moab will. We need to be aggressive."

The commissioners didn't promise anything, and asked Lightenberger to bring a line-by-line tourism budget for them to examine. They also wanted a detailed list of ways the $50,000 would be spent, if approved.

In a related matter, tourism officials were buoyed by the recent discovery of another $30,000, or thereabouts, in lodgers tax revenue. Sue Scott, chairwoman of the county lodgers tax committee, said the revenue came in unexpectedly from late tax filers.

Scott asked that county treasurer Sherry Dyess keep the money in reserve as a cushion for future requests. But she underscored that it should ultimately be spent on tourism promotion, not diverted to unrelated county funds or used to plug shortfalls.

"It can't go to roads," she said.

Several leadership changes are afoot in the local tourism industry. Lightenberger, who owns the Holiday Inn Express, replaced P.G. West as Mesa Verde Country board chair earlier this month. And longtime Mesa Verde Country director Lynn Dyer is retiring at the end of May. The board interviewed four candidates for the position and chose Heather Hughes of Durango, city councilor Shawna McLaughlin said at Tuesday's City Council meeting.