Friday, July 30, 2010

Tensions come to a head

Marketing board and visitors bureau struggle for agreeable future

Express Staff Writer

Suzanne Hartwich, left, assists visitor Brooke Cassell of Seattle Wednesday at the visitor center in Ketchum. Photo by Mountain Express

It's difficult for Board President Rob Santa to be specific about the future of the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau. The organization is still turning through a long hairpin in the road that it entered two months ago. And Santa still can't see what lies ahead after the road straightens and takes a definite course. But, he said, one thing's certain: The bureau will roll on.

The bureau's primary funding—from the cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley—may be falling into the hands of the newly created Sun Valley Resort Area Marketing Inc, the group that sent the bureau into the tight turn it's in. And this marketing board can choose whether to share some of the cities' proposed $800,000 in funding with the bureau. But the marketing board can't simply disassemble the bureau and take the parts it finds useful, even if it has the money and desire to do so.

The marketing board has never explicitly said it wanted to disassemble the bureau, but rumblings of the move have spread across the northern Wood River Valley.

"It's not for the marketing board to determine if the chamber continues and under what form," Santa said.

Bureau Executive Director Carol Waller agreed. Even though the bureau relies on the cities for funding, neither the cities nor marketing board has any say in the direction of the independent, nonprofit organization representing 460 members of the business community.

"The future role of the chamber and visitors bureau will be determined by the chamber's board regarding what is best for our 460 members, the community and its constituents," Waller said.

And, Santa said, he's heard a lot of feedback from these members that they want the visitors bureau and chamber of commerce within it to be retained, despite the plan by Ketchum and Sun Valley mayors to dissolve the chamber but keep visitors services and event planning.

However, the bureau needs funding to continue operations, and membership fees only do so much. The bureau is independent, but it will need to ask the marketing board for money. Waller said the bureau is putting together its funding request to present to the marketing board, which is funded by the cities.

Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich said he's well aware that the bureau needs city funding to continue, even though it is independent.

"The bottom line is we got the dough," Willich said, "and we're going to make the rules. ... My advice to them [the bureau] is play along and play nicely. And we'll all come out of this."

Waller said visitor services will continue in some unknown form, regardless of the amount of city money received, but the fate of the physical visitor center is still undecided. This depends on funding from the marketing board.


Willich said all successful tourist towns have a visitors center and supports "100 percent" having a "capable, dynamic, and welcoming visitors center here."

But his city's draft budget—to be approved sometime in the next month—pledges $400,000 to the marketing board and none to the visitors bureau, despite the bureau's request, with the understanding that it will be left up to the marketing board to share what it deems fit.

Santa and Waller said they and the bureau support the new marketing board and its effort of boosting tourism.

"But the business community just wants a collective effort," Waller said.

In an effort to include the business community, the first three appointed members of the marketing board chose Jane Rizzo—vice-president of client services for Coldwell Banker—on Tuesday to represent the business sector on the five-member board. The Express called Rizzo to hear her concerns for her proprietor peers and learn her goals, but she declined to comment.

"I won't be doing any interviews," Rizzo said.

Bob Rosso, owner of the Elephant's Perch sports store in Ketchum, said he, as a local business owner, hasn't felt included in the conversation from the get-go. He said the creation of a marketing board was "shoved" through without input from area businesses or the visitors bureau.

And, he said, the visitors bureau was painted as an "evil empire" and fears it will be stripped and dropped.

"They (marketing board) had the attitude, 'We don't care what you think. This is what we're going to do. And we're taking away all your money,'" Rosso said of the marketing board. "I've never quite seen anything like it."

Rosso, a resident since 1971, acknowledged that the visitors bureau could have done better at marketing, but that doesn't mean it's to blame for the resort area's economic slump. He said many factors are at play, such as out-of-control real estate prices and a sub-par offering of hotels.

However, Rosso said, he's behind an effort to improve marketing.

"I'm kind of pissed off, but I'm willing," he said.

Trevon Milliard:

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