Umatilla County Commissioner Bill Elfering has abandoned the idea of a county-wide tourism tax on hotels after it was met with stiff resistance by Pendleton hoteliers.
The proposed 2 percent tax, added to hotel customers’ room bill, would have been earmarked to promote tourism in Umatilla County via grants, product development and marketing. But after Elfering listened to concerns from hoteliers and others during a meeting in Hermiston on Thursday, he announced at a second listening session on Friday that the idea had been shelved.
“It’s off the table at this point,” he said. “As long as Travel Pendleton keeps doing what they’re doing and everyone is satisfied with that, then I’m satisfied with it.”
While hoteliers from multiple cities had concerns about how the transient lodging tax would affect their profits and how the money would be spent, it was Pendleton hoteliers and those affiliated with Travel Pendleton and the Pendleton Convention Center who were most vocal in their criticism. They felt that Pendleton — which contains 15 of the 29 hotels affected — would have been disproportionately paying into a fund that would then be used to subsidize other cities that didn’t have their own tourism efforts going. They also voiced concerns that the assessment was just a way to come up with more money to fund the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center in Hermiston.
“Please don’t hamstring Pendleton to supplement other towns in Umatilla County who haven’t committed to tourism and may not have the infrastructure or events to host tourism,” Pendleton Convention Center manager Pat Beard wrote in a letter sent to county commissioners after the announcement of the proposed tax.
During the meeting Thursday morning in Hermiston, Elfering said tourism is part of economic development, but the county’s tourism coordinator Karie Walchli has not had adequate funding to do “much of anything” other than conduct meetings. More money would help promote ways to get more “heads in beds,” he said.
But hoteliers asked why it was always hotels that bore the brunt of tourism assessments when it was also restaurants, gas stations and stores that benefited from tourists spending money in town. Another tax would cut down on their ability to raise rates to pay for rising minimum wage and still stay competitive with hotels in places like Walla Walla and the Tri-Cities, and on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Multiple hoteliers said in today’s world — where hotel prices across the region are available with the touch of a button — travelers will often call and ask a hotel to match a price of a competitor in another city offering rooms for $10 less. If the answer is no, they don’t make a reservation.
Steven Arrasmith, manager for the Holiday Inn Express in Hermiston, added that the majority of travelers who stay at his hotel are traveling for work reasons, not tourism, and said he would want to know specific details about how the money would be used.
Members of the Pendleton-area hospitality industry said Pendleton has always had a “gift for partying” and they would rather continue to trust Travel Pendleton to promote that. Travis Lundquist of the Pendleton KOA said during Friday’s meeting that when he first came to the KOA, the only time it would sell out was the week of Round-Up.
“Through events Pendleton is bringing here, we are no longer selling out one week a year, we are selling out all summer long,” he said.
During Thursday’s meeting, questions were raised about why there was no “Travel Hermiston” or “Travel Milton-Freewater” to handle tourism promotion without the county needing to get involved. Greater Hermiston Area Chamber of Commerce board president Josh Burns said the chamber had approached the city about putting together something like that in Hermiston and was told that the city wasn’t interested in spending the money when tourism wasn’t a “big draw” for the city.
Tracy Bosen of the Pendleton House bed and breakfast said he didn’t want to turn the issue into an east side versus west side problem, but it was important for the county to be equitable in how it collected and divided funds.
“We’d love to help Hermiston,” he said. “We know if Hermiston picks up on things, we’re going to benefit. But Hermiston needs to be in the driver’s seat first.”
After Elfering’s announcement Friday that the county would not pursue the transient lodging tax, conversation turned to other ways that tourism successes in Pendleton could be duplicated in other parts of the county. Attendees agreed that occasional meetings between hoteliers and others in a position to promote tourism in the region could be useful, and Beard passed around a makeshift sign-up sheet to collect contact information.
“Use this energy you have here today,” said Alice Trindle, executive director of the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association.
Bosen said he appreciated the fact that the county had backed off after getting negative feedback.
“Thank you for listening,” he said. “Thank you for actually hearing those concerns.”
Contact Jade McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.