Tourism Funding Gains Traction In House

Tourism Funding Gains Traction In Hous
A House bill to establish a two-to-one private-public funding pool of up to $15 million per biennium to promote statewide tourism in Washington, has gained strong support from lawmakers and stakeholders. Mount Constitution on Orcas Island is one of the state's many scenic locales which attract visitors from around the U.S., and worldwide. Supporters of the bill say it would lead to increased tourism, and jobs. Photo: Visit San Juans.

The push to restore funding for statewide tourism in Washington accelerated Wednesday, January 25 at a public hearing of the House Community Development, Housing and Tribal Affairs Committee. Democratic and Republican lawmakers, county and city tourism agencies, and business stakeholders voiced their strong support for HB 1123. It would create a two-to-one private-public funding partnership of up to $15 million per biennium to promote the whole state to domestic and international visitors. The next day, the bill cleared committee.

State funding would come not through any tax hike, but via a .1 percent slice of existing revenues from sales taxes on lodgings, car rentals and restaurant meals.

The prime sponsor is State Rep. Cary Condotta (R-12). He is joined by bipartisan co-sponsors including State Reps. Andrew Barkis (R-2), Cindy Ryu (D-32), Steve Kirby (D-29), and Gael Tarleton (D-36). Ryu, who chairs the committee, told Lens she hopes to advance the bill.

By a unanimous 7-0 vote, the bill was approved by the committee on Thursday, January 26. There were two amendments. One changed the “private” match to “non-state,” so Ports and nonprofits could pitch in. Another changed the state tourism marketing account from a non-appropriated to an appropriated account.

The next stop for the bill is House Appropriations.

The companion measure is SB 5251. Sponsors include State Sens. Dean Takko (D-19), Judy Warnick (R-13), Christine Rolfes (D-23), John McCoy (D-38), Hans Zeiger (R-25) and Maralyn Chase (D-32). The Senate Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee has referred the measure to the Agriculture, Water and Economic Development Committee.

HB 1123 would fill the gap left after 2011, when legislative funding for statewide tourism had dwindled to a small fraction of its previous level. Supporters argue ramping back up, especially with the envisioned two-to-one private-public funding formula, would generate a strong return on investment from an industry which already yields $21 billion in direct and indirect spending each year in Washington.

‘More Winners, Small Investment’

Condotta told the House community development panel, “this is not something we are going to wait five to six years for…we are definitely losing market share to…other states.” Competitors have “increased their spending on state tourism,” while Washington has cut funding. “That tells you something,” he added.

Condotta continued, “I can’t think of a bill that has more winners than this one for a very small investment. That was the key…to get the state involved at a low level…and prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the return on investment will be there. I don’t look at this as a spending bill at all, I think it is going to return a lot of revenue back to the state.”

Ryu said, “I will be voting for it myself because besides the triple-or-higher return on investment,” it will strengthen the state’s global ties.

‘Timing is Right’

Chris Green, Assistant Director for the Office of Economic Development and Competitiveness at the State Department of Commerce, signed in as neutral on the bill, but said the state should treat tourism as an important export.

“As our dollar increases…it’s harder to get folks internationally to come here and spend money. For that reason, I think the timing is really right” for “new or renewed efforts to look at solutions for tourism promotion,“ said Green.

Regional Tourism Agencies ‘Handcuffed’

Several of the state’s major regional tourism associations support the envisioned private-public partnership.

Amy Spain, Executive Director of Snohomish County Tourism Bureau, told Lens, “Having a statewide tourism marketing program is essential to the growth of tourism in Washington state…” for “reaching markets and promoting the state, so that the individual destination marketing organizations, like (our) tourism bureau, are not out there by ourselves.”

Spain added, “I need to spend my dollars to attract visitors to Snohomish County, not just Washington…we are handcuffed to a certain degree because there isn’t a statewide authority to promote the state as a whole, to bring business to Washington.”

Kate Hudson, Public Relations Manager at Visit Spokane, said the legislation “would provide for more economic development and jobs, as well as state and local tax revenue from increasing tourism to Washington,” she said.

Tourism A ‘Critical’ Industry

Morgan Hickel, Government Affairs Manager for the Washington Hospitality Association, told lawmakers, “Tourism is extremely important to us and critical to the vitality of our state. An investment in tourism brings new money to Washington and benefits us all by returning dollars to every community in the state. By investing in tourism, you are guaranteeing a return on investment. It creates jobs, provides economic opportunity, and supports vital infrastructure.”

Becky Bogard, lobbyist for the Washington Tourism Alliance, testified that the bill is “a way to try to get Washington state back in the tourism game…bring more people to the state and get them out to all of your areas.”

Amendment Suggested

Bogard asked the committee to amend the bill’s provision on matching contributions, to change the word “private” to “non-state.” She said, “There are port districts that are interested in tourism. There are other public bodies interested in tourism. We want to make sure that they have the opportunity to contribute to this program in the match portion of it.”

Mark Johnson, Vice President of Government Affairs at the Washington Retail Association, said,  “We have a number of members that cater to tourism, and we think this bill is a very reasoned step in the right direction. We think it will help bring more people here, (to) shop in our stores, so we commend it and hope the committee will pass it.”

Josh McDonald, Executive Director of the Washington Wine Institute, said the industry includes scores of wineries and tasting rooms “across the state, mostly located in rural areas,” that “rely very heavily on the tourist dollar to keep the doors open.” He added that along with restaurants, airlines and hotels, “we are all part of this effort together and…can…bring a lot of economic development back to Washington state.”

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Mike Richards grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. He graduated from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA with a degree in Multiplatform Journalism and a minor in Public Relations. He wrote and published articles at Pittsburgh’s NPR station covering a variety of topics.

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