Tourism matters in Umatilla County, and nowhere more than in Pendleton.
The Round-Up City is chockablock with hotels and motels that fill for the annual rodeo, but stay busy throughout the year thanks to the town’s stylish offerings for tourists, as well as interstate travelers who just need an affordable place to rest.
Pendleton is further ahead than other municipalities in Umatilla County when it comes to tourism infrastructure, but it’s easy to see other cities have plenty to offer. Milton-Freewater is a growing heart of wine country, and close to the perks of downtown Walla Walla. Tollgate and Ukiah can capture hunters and outdoors enthusiasts. And Hermiston continues to grow as an important stop for business travelers, a different type of tourism but heads in beds nonetheless.
There are opportunities to help create and promote a countywide tourism program, but county commissioner Bill Elfering’s plan was a nonstarter. He proposed adding a 2 percent tax to hotel customers’ room bill within Umatilla County.
But without an idea of how the money would be used to increase tourism, the tax was destined to fall flat with hoteliers and tourism professionals not affiliated with the county. And fall flat it did. By the time Elfering arrived for a second scheduled meeting on the issue, he had already declared the tax “off the table.”
And that’s the right thing to do.
But the tax plan’s demise also shines an important spotlight on the county tourism department.
Elfering said the tourism coordinator — Karie Walchli — doesn’t have funding to do “much of anything.” The tourism tax would have been a way to give the department some money to play with.
That’s the exact wrong way to run government, of course. Private enterprise knows that labor is expensive, and you don’t hire someone without having the revenue to afford it and a belief that your investment is going to more than pay for itself.
That’s not the way government seems to operate in Oregon, however. An ever-increasing number of government employees are forcing private enterprise to keep up with paying those significant salaries and benefits — cart before horse style. That Portland/Salem thinking has made its way to Eastern Oregon.
There are lots of tourism groups already operating — backed by both public and private dollars. Travel Oregon has made good headway. The Eastern Oregon Visitors Association also helps promote Umatilla County’s major events, to less success but on a much lower budget. Travel Pendleton works hard to keep the tourism dollars churning in that city year round.
Tourism is hard work. It’s a crop that must be planted, watered and tended for many years before it begins to bear fruit. It’s irresponsible to treat it as an enterprise from which money can be skimmed to fill government coffers.