The Sitka Assembly voted Tuesday night (1-13-15) to dissolve the city’s Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. The bureau plans to reconstitute itself as an independent nonprofit, one that could bid for city contracts to do much of the marketing and convention planning it does now.
The ordinance must come before the Assembly at least two more times, but for now, the future of the visitors’ bureau is uncertain.
In the words of City Administrator Mark Gorman, the Sitka Convention and Visitors’ Bureau is “neither fish nor fowl”: it isn’t a city department, and yet it isn’t entirely independent, either.
“Our exact form has been an ongoing topic of discussion for more than a decade,” said bureau director Tonia Rioux. “We were originally established in 1980 as a sort of commission, and over the years we have morphed into the organization that we are today.”
That organization employs four people, and is responsible for marketing Sitka to potential tourists and conventions, and providing visitor services. It answers to a board, which in turn is appointed by the Assembly. And it’s funded almost entirely by bed taxes collected by the city — amounting to more than $300,000 last year.
But the bureau doesn’t answer to the city administrator. And it no longer resembles the volunteer commission described in the Sitka General Code.
Mayor Mim McConnell said that creates a suite of complications and liabilities for the city.
“The ordinance is just completely different from what is, in reality, happening, and I feel like that needs to get rectified,” McConnell said. “The best way, in my mind, is to have the CVB be dissolved, and let them become what they really are, which is a nonprofit.”
The ordinance debated Tuesday night was sponsored by McConnell and Assembly Member Ben Miyasato — and initiated by former Assembly Member Phyllis Hackett. It would dissolve the bureau and then issue a public request for proposals to handle conventions, marketing and tourist services.
The visitors’ bureau would turn itself into a nonprofit that could bid for those contracts. Rioux said the bureau supports that move.
“The entire board and organization feels like this is a natural progression to get rid of the old ordinance that no longer fits,” she said. “And then we of course would be submitting a proposal to handle all of the marketing and conventions, as we have previously. Operating for 35 years promoting tourism and helping to manage conventions locally, we feel that we would be the best organization to take this on.”
But that would by no means be a sure thing. Any organization could bid for those contracts, as member Steven Eisenbeisz reminded the assembly.
“There would be a distinct possibility that the visitors’ bureau would receive less than they currently do, say, 50% of what they currently do, possibly even zero,” he said. “Would the Visitors’ Bureau be able to survive on their own, with zero bed tax funding?”
“No,” Rioux answered. “I mean, I guess I should say, potentially we could maintain some sort of organization with much less employees, but that would be more of a question for the board.”
Assembly Member Tristan Guevin suggested another approach: folding the bureau into an existing city department, perhaps the Planning Department.
“I think this position may be able to support the functions of that department,’ he said. “And, two, I want to ensure that positions created with this money are offered at a livable wage, with health benefits and, where appropriate and possible, with support of a union, protections of a union.”
City Administrator Mark Gorman said that bringing all four bureau employees onto the city’s payroll — including benefits — would cost about $100,000 a year. One or more positions would have to be cut to keep the bureau within its existing budget.
In the end, the Assembly voted unanimously on first reading to dissolve the visitor’s bureau. The ordinance will come up at least two more times before it becomes law.