By Mary Faith Bell, Tillamook County Commissioner
Last year when I was on the campaign trail for the office of county commissioner, a number of people asked me, ‘What is the county doing with TLT facilities dollars?’ There was speculation that the county was hoarding millions of dollars of Transient Lodging Tax (TLT) revenue for unknown purposes. People wanted to know where that money was going, and if it is not being reinvested back into the community, why not? They called for transparency and a public process.
I will attempt to answer those questions and I invite the public to our July 31 Board of County Commissioners meeting at 10 a.m. at the Tillamook County courthouse to learn more.
I’ll start with a brief history: in 2013 Tillamook County voters approved a Transient Lodging Tax to be collected from transient lodging providers in Tillamook County. Voters were in support of the tax largely because 30 percent of the revenue was dedicated to the roads department. At the time, Tillamook County had some of the worst roads in the state, with no solution in sight. (In the past the roads department was funded by timber revenues, but that’s another column for another day.)
The county started collecting TLT revenue in January 2014. By state law, 70 percent of the revenue collected from lodging providers must be spent on tourism promotion. The county appointed a Tourism Advisory Committee (the TAC) comprised of industry representatives and citizens at large, representing North, central and South Tillamook County. I was an original member of the TAC. A consultant was hired to begin laying the foundation for a local destination marketing organization that would become Visit Tillamook Coast.
From the beginning it was clear to everyone involved that Tillamook County wanted to approach tourism in our own way: we want visitors to come and enjoy the natural beauty of our area without damaging or destroying it; we want to retain our identity as a working community built on dairy farming, timber and fishing and we want our locally owned, tourism based businesses to thrive. Essentially, we want to build our economy without giving up our quality of life. We understood that this would be a balancing act that would require careful stewardship.
The decision was made to separate the (70 percent portion of the TLT) revenue into two pots: one for tourism promotions and one for tourism facilities. This was a great move in my opinion, and bold, because it had not been done elsewhere. Other communities were using the bulk of their TLT revenue to advertise for more tourists; however, Tillamook said, ‘We want to invest in infrastructure that benefits the community and supports tourists when they are here.’ Grant processes were established for tourism facilities and tourism promotions, i.e., helping local businesses to be successful with their advertising, online presence, signage, etc.
In the early stages of grant funding, facilities grants were awarded for several terrific projects such as the expansion of the Kiawanda Community Center, where a lovely community meeting room was added that also serves as a place where visitors get married and hold events. Grants funded the handicapped accessible restroom at the Tillamook Association for the Performing Arts (TAPA) Barn Community Playhouse and a beautiful renovation of the performing arts center at the North County Recreation District (NCRD). Lots of great facilities projects have been accomplished with TLT dollars resulting in positive economic impacts on the local community while improving the visitor experience. At that time the TAC, under leadership of Visit Tillamook Coast, was reviewing grant applications for both promotions and facilities grants and making recommendations to the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC).
Thereafter the BOCC elected to take over distribution of the TLT facilities dollars. They formed a new citizen committee to review grant applications. I served on the new committee along with several other members of the original TAC. The facilities grant application process became less frequent and the grants were limited to smaller amounts (up to $15,000 per project for a total of $100,000).
This is, not unreasonably, when the community started asking, ‘Hey, what is the county doing with the facilities dollars?’ The truth is that the BOCC wanted to be intentional and strategic about investing the revenue in ways that would best serve the community. They wanted to award grants that were aligned with a strategic vision for Tillamook County moving into the future, and they wanted the public to inform this process. In 2017, the Tillamook County Future’s Council was empowered to conduct listening sessions across the county to ask residents, ‘What do you want us to do with TLT facilities funds?’
Lots of people participated in those sessions, and the responses were generally weighted in these categories: natural environment/outdoor recreation investments, trails that connect the communities, and infrastructure that supports tourists when they are here, such as bathrooms and parking lots.
This was good information, but the BOCC lacked a strategy for prioritizing the investments. Enter Future iQ. A consulting firm called Future iQ was contracted in 2019 to do the working of affirming the community’s priorities for TLT investment and developing a rubric, or a scoring guide, to evaluate facilities grant applications as they relate to the county’s tourism strategy.
Starting in February 2019, many people in our community attended tourism think tanks and listening sessions in person, and hundreds more participated online. Ultimately over 400 Tillamook County residents weighed in and shared what they want the future of tourism in our county to look like, and how they would like to see us invest the TLT revenue. The participants were an organic mix of residents who are not involved in the tourism industry and those who are, that represent a variety of ages and backgrounds from every corner of the county. The results were affirming in that they illustrate our common values: almost unanimously the top priorities identified were care of the natural environment, trails/natural recreation opportunities and infrastructure that supports tourists and benefits the county.
The Future iQ report is nearly complete; we saw a draft version this week and we will present a final version at our July 31 BOCC meeting. David Beurle of Future iQ will be presenting to unveil the tool that the BOCC will use to score facilities grant applications. We will move forward with confidence that the citizens of Tillamook County have a shared regional vision for tourism and TLT investment and we commit that the work that we do in the future will reflect your vision.
The public is invited to the BOCC meeting. It will also be available, as always, on local Charter cable channel 4 and online at tctvonline.com.
In future columns, I will address tourism related topics such as the recent changes at Visit Tillamook Coast, which has become a 501(c)6 and moved out from the umbrella of the Economic Development Council; I will describe how we will employ the results of the Future iQ study, what we have accomplished with TLT funds to date and what is on the horizon. Please feel free to email me questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you to everyone who participated in the listening sessions and helped to guide us in our work.