By Henry Twombly
(March 18, 2017)
After reading the SRRN 3/10/17 article “City & Chamber talk contract,” I began to wonder if the Chamber has become a part of a shadow government, and if the Council has unwittingly ceded some of its powers to the Chamber. The City gives nearly two million dollars annually to the Chamber via 55% of bed taxes and funds for destination marketing. This seems an outrageous amount for a “city” of only 10,000 plus people.
Consequently there has been a debate on whether or not to renew the City’s contract with the Chamber for destination marketing. An earlier SRRN editorial supported the Chamber with specious arguments against all the alternative options: a request for proposal for tourism services; an independent marketing firm; a city department of tourism; and a travel consultant study “to assess the current structure and funding and provide recommendations to the city.” It’s hard to believe the Council would pass up an opportunity to fund yet another study, when this would be the logical first step to figure out the efficacy of the Chamber’s destination marketing. Though the Chamber would argue an independent analysis has already been done (by a Yavapai College professor and friend of the Chamber’s CEO), I am skeptical about any statistics put out by the Chamber since the scope of those stats usually include the entire region and not just the city of Sedona. The end result is that it always appears that we are getting more bang for our buck than we really are.
Instead of reducing the amount of money given to the Chamber and taking back some of its powers, the Council wants more input in how the Chamber spends its allocation. Consequently the Chamber is worried it will lose control over the money and/or get less in the bargain. Could it be that the Council has realized it has given the Chamber too much money for marketing? The Chamber counters by saying it is spending it on “product development,” i.e. attributes and amenities that make Sedona more enticing to tourists. “And because product development has not been defined, funding can be used for a variety of sources that enhance the visitor experience – traffic and parking mitigation and trail maintenance – while benefiting the city.” Examples of the Chamber acting as an independent arm of city government are the $56,000 donated to the US Forest Service and its proposed purchase of a Jordan Rd. property for a parking lot at the cost of a million dollars over the next 4 years. This “product development” benefits the tourist industry at the expense of the residents, whose wasterwater rates could be reduced with this million bucks. Yet the City justifies its transfer of power in allowing the Chamber to set the agenda as the prudent use of the Chamber as a proxy. “‘That product development piece has given us [the city] some flexibility to do things that would otherwise have no dedicated funding source,” Assistant Karen Osburn said.”…”She went on to add,”As far as we can tell, there is an unlimited number of possible programs and projects. There is a long list so I don’t think we’re going to be in a situation where we say, ‘What are we going to do with product development money?'”
Wow, this sounds like the Council and the Chamber are now joined at the hip; that there’s been some sort of fusion, a probably illegal blurring of lines between city government and a non-profit; that the Chamber’s board members are now our unelected co-councilors. All the more reason for the Council to take back its powers and take away the Chamber’s destination marketing money and reduce its percentage of the bed tax from 55% to 30%. The Council should be making the decisions on how to spend “product development” money. In fact the Council should cut back funds to bare-bones support of the Chamber and hire an independent agency for destination marketing. Or the Council could eliminate the more non-essential jobs (around economic diversity, social media, etc.) and use those funds to do its own destination marketing. The Council was elected to represent us residents and work for the common good, not to collude in promoting the agendas of special interests.