The Sitka Convention and Visitor’s Bureau is no more. The Sitka assembly last night (Tue 9-8-15) voted to dissolve the organization and transfer its responsibilities to the Chamber of Commerce, at a cost of $225,000 for the rest of the year.

Downloadable audio.

The decision was not an easy one. Some on the assembly had reservations about handing over public money — namely, Sitka’s bed taxes — to a private organization. The Sitka Chamber of Commerce occasionally engages in political advocacy that, according to member Tristan Guevin, not everyone in the community supports.

“What gives me pause, I suppose, are the lobbying activities of the Chamber. And in my mind, the Chamber has at times taken positions that are contrary to Sitka’s best interests.”

Chamber board members Ptarmica McConnell and Suzan Hess explained that their business plan was to keep the visitor services side of the organization completely separate from other Chamber functions — even maintaining separate accounting.

But that didn’t quite satisfy Guevin.

“I just don’t feel like we can divorce those lobbying activities and positions from these tourism and visitor services.”

Deputy mayor Matt Hunter echoed that sentiment, saying that he would want to be assured that the Chamber would spend “every dime” of the up to $300,000 in bed taxes it receives on visitor services and marketing.

And except for this question, Hunter, along with the remaining assembly members was favorably disposed toward the Chamber.

Steven Eisenbeisz, whose wife Ashley holds a seat on the Chamber board, said that he’d long felt that the Chamber “was the right place for these services.”

Dealing with visitor services and marketing in Sitka has been on the front-burner for local government for months. Administrator Mark Gorman said that awarding the contract to the Chamber was one of only a couple of choices left for the assembly.

“The only viable option that remains is to take the Sitka convention and visitor services in-house.”

Gorman noted that creating two full-time staff positions in city hall to perform the work specified in the contract would cost nearly $225,000, including all salary and benefits.

With only $300,000 in bed taxes in play, the Chamber contract was looking more efficient.
Mayor Mim McConnell, calling in from her family home in Maine, urged the assembly to action.

“Let’s get this going. I feel like we’ve been treading water for a long time and it’s not good for the community, it’s not good for the Visitor’s Bureau, and it’s not good for the tourism industry. It’s time to move forward, and I think this is a good way.”

McConnell’s daughter, Jennifer Robinson, formerly served as executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. She resigned the position earlier in the summer.

There were three other bidders on the contract: the Sitka Convention & Visitor’s Bureau itself proposed reorganizing as an autonomous non-profit; the Sitka Economic Development Association put in an offer; and a freelance business consultant, Matthew Turner, also bid.

The assembly preferred going with the Chamber, since there was so much precedent for the combination of services in other communities. The vote was 5-1, with Ben Myasato absent and Tristan Guevin opposed. Guevin’s dissenting opinion was to make the convention and visitors bureau a function of Harrigan Centennial Hall, and house it in the refurbished facility when it’s complete.

The Chamber will take over visitor services beginning on October 1 of this year. The contract will expire in June of 2018.