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Tourism strategy report has chamber fans irate

A consultant's report stirs up hornet's nest

A consultant's report on how best to enhance tourism in Klickitat County has stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy. Local supporters of the Mt. Adams Chamber of Commerce are bristling over a consultant's report that, among other points, lists the chamber as a "weakness" when it comes to efforts to improve tourism in Klickitat County.

The draft report, referred to as "Klickitat County Tourism Strategic Plan," was prepared for the county's Tourism Advisory Board by Pearl Communications, a Seattle firm.

Debra Reed, manager of the Mt. Adams Chamber, ripped the report.

"It's sloppy," she said. "It incorrectly gives our visitor counts. They say the chambers don't differentiate between walk-throughs versus telephone calls, but we do. And it's not accurate to say the county needs to develop a tourist-friendly visitors' center. There's not a more friendly center anywhere."

Reed was especially irked by one section of the document that listed the local Chamber of Commerce as a "weakness" for the county's tourism efforts.

"Where did they get that?" Reed questioned. "Where did that label come from? That didn't come at any public meeting."

Erin Anderson, assistant vice president of First Independent Bank in Bingen and a board member of the Mt. Adams Chamber, admitted he was "hot" after reading the Pearl report.

"I was disappointed by the treatment of the chambers," Anderson said. "I thought it was an attempt to marginalize the chambers to justify cessation of their funding."

Robin Hale, who owns Bridge RV Park on State Route 14 just outside of Bingen, was among those unhappy with the Pearl document.

"I thought they missed a lot of important factors," said Hale, a past president of the chamber. "I think the chambers are doing a real good job. We've worked on building it up for years, and businesses at this end of the county rely on it. I just don't think you can have tourism without a personal touch. The chamber provides a lot of goodwill and keeps us tied together."

Hale said county funding for the chambers is a great investment.

"For $15,000, you leverage so much help through the chambers," Hale explained. "That $15,000 wouldn't be very much for a brochure to be sent to Seattle, or something like that. I don't see how we can spend that money any better than we are now. Once you're Disneyland or Mt. Rushmore, maybe a website would work, but this is Klickitat County."

White Salmon Mayor Roger Holen said he was suspicious about what he regarded as a long-planned effort to cut out the chambers. As evidence, he pointed to a new color tourism brochure titled, "Klickitat Wine County -- From Grapes to Glass."

"It says it was produced by the Klickitat Wine Alliance, and on the back it reads, `For lodging and recreation information, call the Klickitat County Economic Development Department,' and it gives the department's toll-free number," Holen said. "Come on, this brochure has been in the works for quite some time. To decide months ago to leave the chambers out, I find quite interesting."

Anderson said he was concerned when he saw the brochures.

"I was surprised by that. We're still under contract with the county to provide tourism information services," Anderson said. "It felt to me that someone had decided we wouldn't be doing that any more."

Holen added that calling the Economic Development Department in Goldendale was not very effective in helping to promote tourism.

"I know somebody who called the 800 number and asked, `can you tell me about RV parks at the west end of the county,' and of course they didn't know anything about that," Holen said. "It's troubling."

Dana Peck, director of the county's Economic Development Department, said there was a simple reason for using the Economic Development Department's toll-free number on the Klickitat Wine Alliance brochure rather than the local chamber offices.

"The chambers don't have an 800 number," Peck said. "In retrospect, we probably should have communicated better with the chambers on that."

Peck added that his office did not necessarily support the draft report.

"We helped them fund the thing, but it's the Tourism Advisory Board's plan," Peck explained. "It's a survey and analysis by consultants hired by the Tourism Advisory Board."

The study cost $15,000. Of that, the county provided $5,000, while the rest came via a grant from the U.S. Forest Service.

Anderson said he was worried the county might seek to remove the Mt. Adams Chamber of Commerce from the Heritage Center, adjacent to the Hood River Toll Bridge on State Route 14.

He pointed to a section under "recommendations" in the Pearl report. It read: "Develop an agreement with outside party to run Goldendale and Mt. Adams visitor centers ... either a private party who wants prime location with free rent in exchange for services or a private party who creates a visitors' center in their existing location ... Space issues will need to be worked out for existing Chambers of Commerce..."

Holen said what he had seen of the report wasn't likely to help the west end of the county.

"True, there are a lot of things the chambers are not doing well -- but why throw the baby out with the bath water? The report from Pearl Communications said the chambers are a detriment to tourism. That's BS," Holen said. "It's not that the report is all bad, but the conclusion is to farm tourism out to a private entity. This ought to make for an interesting discussion at candidates' night."

Jim Rutledge, one of the 11 members of the Tourism Advisory Board in Klickitat County, said the study was still being reviewed.

"We have the study but have not yet been able to work with it, to adopt or not adopt it," he said.

He added that the strategic plan was designed to help the county become more effective in attracting visitors and to compete with three adjacent counties to qualify for tourism-related grants.

"We had to have a strategic plan to do that," he said. "It's important for everybody to understand it's difficult to take a plan and discuss it publicly before it is presented to the County Commissioners. We have to have the support of the community and the county, or it's difficult to maintain focus."

Rutledge added that the Tourism Advisory Board has to accept or reject the report from Pearl Communications.

"We can't change anything in it; it's a study prepared by a professional contractor," he said.

Hale challenged the report's approach.

"They focused on a certain age group and totally missed all the rest of the people who come here, such as fishermen," he said.


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