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Originally published Wednesday, August 22, 2012 at 1:58 PM

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Skagit County seeks ways to lure more tourists

With state tourism-promotion funding all gone, smaller areas are struggling to market themselves.

Skagit Valley Herald

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Those who live in Skagit County may be aware of its stunning scenic beauty, scrumptious farm-fresh produce, shopping opportunities and outdoor activities.

The question is: How do potential tourists and customers elsewhere find out about what Skagit has to offer?

Since Washington's tourism promotion office lost its budget and stopped operating in June 2011, some smaller markets, including Skagit County, have had sparse funds to bring tourists to their region — passing up potential increased business and sales-tax revenue in the process.

It's something Lennart Bentsen and a growing number of supporters are working to change.

In 2009 Bentsen, director of corporate culture and leadership for the Hotel Services Group, began organizing a drive to create the Skagit Tourism Bureau. The following year, a summit of local restaurateurs, hoteliers and business owners supported the creation of a central tourism agency and petitioned the county for less than $100,000 to get the idea off the ground.

Simplified, the idea is to use a state law to establish a Tourism Promotion Area (TPA), which would add a fee to hotel rooms in interested cities to fund a countywide marketing plan, placing advertisement for the county in major cities like Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., to stimulate tourism here.

"We've got the wineries, water sports, agritourism — we've got everything we need — we just don't have a net out there," Bentsen said.

In cities that join the TPA, hotels with more than 40 rooms would charge a $2 fee per night to fund a marketing plan for all member cities. A board of directors comprised of hotel owners and managers, a county commissioner and city representatives would decide the direction of the marketing and approve budgets.

A marketing director hired by the board would craft and deliver promotional materials, Bentsen said.

Bentsen, who also serves as secretary on the Economic Development Association of Skagit County board of directors, said Skagit hotel owners are on board with the proposal. He said county hotels feature low fares and additional fees compared to more urban areas, and could use additional advertising to boost occupancies.

"Outside of the Tulip Festival, there's really not a whole lot going on. That would be one of the main goals of the bureau, to stimulate demand for hotels in those off-seasons," Bentsen said.

Suzanne Fletcher, executive director of the new, privately funded Washington Tourism Alliance, said Washington is the only state without a publicly funded tourism board. Even when the office was open, she said it was too poorly funded to be competitive with other states.

"When it closed, the budget was $1.8 million annually. I think it was 49th in the country. Disgraceful. We couldn't stay competitive; it was nowhere on the screen," Fletcher said. In comparison, Fletcher said California has a state tourism budget of $60 million, and Montana has $20 million.

She said the loss of a state tourism board was especially hard on smaller markets, where a lack of marketing can degrade regional economies. While Fletcher's organization is moving to secure approximately $7.5 million for a statewide marketing presence, she said regional boards are essential for advertising local attractions at the state level and beyond.

"We need them as much as they need us. They are our eyes and ears on the ground," Fletcher said.

Bentsen said he is part of a county marketing board brought together by the directors of Skagit County cities' chambers of commerce. However, he said the members are volunteers with full-time jobs, and the budget is a paltry $30,000 annually.

When an ad in a large metro newspaper can cost thousands of dollars for a weekend and billboards run $8,000 to $9,000 per month, Bentsen said the group quickly realized the limitations.

"We came to the conclusion pretty rapidly that we were going to need a bigger budget to be effective," he said.

Bentsen said a 2010 survey of all applicable hotels in the region showed the TPA bringing in $300,000 over the next few years. Depending on how well the marketing campaign works and how the economy recovers, he said $500,000 is possible in the next five to 10 years.

Tom Keogh, regional service manager of Best Western International, said a TPA established in Snohomish County last year has already seen success in bringing sports tournaments to under-used fields there.

The proposal there was initiated by the county parks department to help offset the cost of maintaining fields, but Keogh said hoteliers are seeing benefits, as well.

Ke o g h s a I d h e w a s brought on board in Snohomish County to help convince city councils that the idea was a good one.

"There's kind of a kneejerk reaction to new taxes, but it's kind of the hotels taxing themselves. With increased business, the cities would have increased sales tax. They were in a 100 percent win position," Keogh said.

Terica Taylor, temporary coordinator for Skagit's proposal, said the biggest obstacle in forming the TPA has been clarifying the proposal to city councils. Last year, the La Conner Town Council approved the plan. Concrete, Hamilton and Lyman town councils approved the plan as well, although those towns do not have a hotel large enough to accept the fee.

O n We d n e s d a y, t h e Mount Vernon City Council unanimously approved a r e s o l u t I o n a l l o w I n g Mayor Jill Boudreau to enter an interlocal agreement forming a TPA. Councilman Bob Fielder said one of the earlier questions he had of the proposal was why the hotels didn't pay for marketing themselves and avoid cities altogether.

He said he learned that through the state law, fees wouldn't be taxed, allowing the full amount of money to go to the marketing board.

"I think we were all over-thinking it. It's very simple really," Fielder said. "We've got to think of the county not as individual cities, but as one county. If you get people into the county, they'll stay in the county. I think it will be a great benefit to everyone, regardless of where they're staying."

Taylor said within one month, the TPA will be on the agenda of city councils in Burlington, Sedro-Woolley and Anacortes. If a resolution is gained from all cities, a vote will go out to hotel representatives. If it passes, the county will have 14 days to approve an ordinance forming the promotion board.

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