The community’s smallest tourism marketing budget in a decade received approval last week from the Walla Walla City Council.
In a split 4-3 vote that continued to demonstrate hardship in divvying the tighter funds, Council on Wednesday approved a $600,000 budget recommended by the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee, which had its own struggle in late October to create the proposal with original requests from 12 applicants for $1.385 million.
One change for the next year will be the transition from three- to one-year allocations. This gives Council the space to change the amounts as the economy recovers.
The budget is derived from taxes at local lodging establishments for overnight guests. With the pandemic restricting nonessential travel, tourism took a sharp turn downward this year.
Hence the total taxes are conservatively projected to reach $600,000, down from last year’s revenues of $1.1 million.
Under the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee’s recommendation, 2.5% of that will be set aside to rebuild reserves. That equates to about $15,000, an amount Council member Myron Huie said is too low.
“I’m uneasy with the reserve fund you’re projecting now,” Huie told Deputy City Manager Elizabeth Chamberlain, who serves as a staff liaison to the committee.
The amount is less than the original staff proposal of 5%.
Council member Ted Koehler, who represents the Council as chair of the committee, said he shared the concern but he made the compromise to decrease the amount in order to dedicate more money to market the community through the COVID-19 hardship.
“Part of my concession in reducing it down to the 2.5% is this is a really conservative budget set,” he explained.
One of the bigger arguments against approval came from Mayor Tom Scribner who opposed the vast majority of the funds going to destination marketing organization Visit Walla Walla.
The organization was created with a mission to market the Valley.
But Scribner has made no qualms in his support of combining more of Walla Walla’s nonprofit agencies whose causes overlap. He lauded the move by the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance and Visit Walla Walla to share a single executive director.
In the scenario he described, however, the scales would tip in favor of the alliance receiving more money than what was recommended.
“From my point of view, I think — shout out to the wine industry — that the wine industry, in and of itself, is more responsible for bringing people to Walla Walla and putting heads in beds than anything Visit does,” Scribner said.
For that reason, he wanted to send the proposal back to the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee for reconsideration.
Under state statute, Council could have approved or rejected the proposal as submitted but not change it. Rejection would have sent it back to the committee.
Scribner pointed out that Visit will receive more funds through Tourism Promotion Area dollars designated by the Walla Walla Hotel & Motel Commission.
Scribner, Huie and Council member Susan Nakoniezny voted against the recommendation while Council members Steve Moss, Koehler, Riley Clubb and Yazmin Bahena supported it.
Under the budget, Visit will receive $406,020, or 67.67% of the projected budget.
The revenue is expected to be assessed mid-2021 to evaluate whether modifications to grant awards are needed.
Requests from Walla Walla Movie Crush and Walla Walla Chamber Music Festival were not allocated because those organizations weren’t able to host events in 2020 for which they received money. A request from the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce for 73% of the budget to become the destination marketing organization was rejected.