Sitka will try, again,  to find an alternative to the existing Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The Sitka Assembly on Tuesday (7-15-15) directed the city to reach out to local contractors who might take over the CVB’s work.

It’s part of the city’s ongoing struggle to dissolve the Bureau — and so far it’s been a messy process.

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The Sitka Convention and Visitors Bureau has been under a cloud of uncertainty since the assembly voted earlier this year to dissolve it. (Facebook screenshot)

The Sitka Convention and Visitors Bureau has been under a cloud of uncertainty since the assembly voted earlier this year to dissolve it. (Facebook screenshot)

First, let’s start with what the Sitka Convention and Visitors’ Bureau currently does — because unless you’re one of the roughly 200 organizations that make up its membership, you’ve probably never given it much thought.

Bureau Director Tonia Rioux reeled off a series of statistics at Tuesday night’s assembly meeting:

Rioux: Our website gets about 8,560 unique visits per month on average…our Facebook page has been very, very successful. We have a weekly reach of about 100,000…Publications that we had ads in for FY15 includes Alaska Airlines Magazine, Alaska Magazine, Alaska Sporting Journal, Backpacker Magazine…We were represented at the LA Travel and Adventure Show, the San Diego Travel and Adventure Show, the San Francisco Bay Area Travel and Adventure Show…

You get the picture. The Visitors Bureau markets Sitka to everyone from conventions to cruise lines to couples on honeymoon. It maintains an enticing online presence. It mails out truckloads of promotional materials. And once visitors actually arrive, it’s responsible for pointing them to the nearest lunch spot, or connecting them with a kayak tour. It does that with four full-time staff members from an office on Lincoln Street.

And assembly members have been reluctant to state clearly exactly what the problem is with that set-up — leaving even some of their own in the dark. Member Michelle Putz gave voice to that feeling last month.

“I feel that there are things being left unsaid,” Putz said at the June 23 assembly meeting. “Because I don’t know exactly what’s going on.”

“If you don’t feel like you know what’s going on,” she told the public, join the club.

But one issue is clear: the Visitors’ Bureau has outgrown its original ordinance, and no longer resembles the volunteer commission described in city code. Instead, it’s become something of a hybrid — neither truly independent nor a full city department. It’s funded with about $300,000 in city bed taxes, and governed by a board appointed by the assembly. But unlike, say, the Electric Department, it doesn’t report to the City Administrator. In practice, that means the city is on the hook for any problems but has virtually no oversight.

So, for the better part of a year, the assembly has been casting about for a better structure. First, the city issued a request for proposals, asking for outside bids to take over the Bureau’s work. It got only one – from the existing CVB, which hopes to transform itself into an independent nonprofit.  The city declared that proposal “nonresponsive.”

So the assembly then asked for a plan to do the work in-house. City Administrator Mark Gorman proposed contracting out most of the marketing while absorbing visitors services into Harrigan Centennial Hall, with a single position to coordinate it all.  That proposal was essentially dead on arrival.

“I don’t like the option of bringing it into Harrigan Centennial Hall,” said Deputy Mayor Matt Hunter. “I know there are some staff concerns with that, and also the public [is] saying, we’re going from four people working on this full time, to one person in the city.”

But Hunter pointed to a section of the Sitka General Code [3.16.060] that allows for exceptions to the competitive bidding process, when a bid has failed. He suggested having Gorman reach out to local organizations in a more informal process, to see if he can rustle up new proposals.

That made no sense to Sitka resident Sherry Aiken, who urged the assembly to leave the CVB as-is.

“If you are going to hamstring us from promoting tourism…I don’t know how you’re going to generate sales tax revenue to run your city, ok?” Aiken said. “It’s really, really important that we encourage business. You are going down a pathway that I don’t think you don’t need to go down. You need to walk it back.”

But the assembly decided not to walk it back. Gorman was directed to canvass for other options — so if you’ve ever dreamed of taking over Sitka’s marketing, now’s your chance.

In the meantime, the Bureau will continue operating until at least September.