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Group seeks board’s support to boost Plumas County’s tourism and economy

By Victoria Metcalf

[email protected]

 

While Plumas County offers lakes, mountains, and plenty of recreational opportunities, so do at least seven other California counties and they’re well ahead of Plumas when it comes to grabbing tourism dollars.

That’s according to a presentation from the Feather River Tourism Association (FRTA) to the Plumas County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, April 20. FRTA is comprised of an ambitious group of volunteers who realize Plumas County is slipping off the destination map and they want to see it returned to its rightful place.

Since 2011 volunteers with FRTA have been busy. Working with a consultant, organization members have developed a marketing plan or strategy, selected a brand that encapsulates what makes the area special or different, and produced is a message. What FRTA is offering, is the first tourism marketing strategy done in more than a decade, said Susan Bryner, vice chair of FRTA.

What concerns these volunteers, and, in their opinion should concern other residents, is that Plumas County has fallen well behind other counties with similar offerings. One study showed in 2008-09 that in the seven comparable counties, Plumas County was “not keeping up,” Bryner said. In 2015, the same consultant showed an 11 percent growth in those counties, but Plumas was further behind. “That’s when we got a tourism district (Feather River Tourism Marketing District) formed here.”

Bryner said that she and like-minded people, “Decided it was no longer okay to bump along.”

To accomplish what the volunteers have, it’s taken thousands of volunteer hours and private funds. Through its efforts, FRTA earned a District Formation of the Year award from Civitas. That organization called FRTA, “the little district that could and did.”

When planning a destination vacation, it’s all done online, Bryner explained. And travelers have a lot to choose from. So how does Plumas County stand out? It has to position itself in the marketplace, choose a brand and message that stands out from the crowd.

“We do have a unique cultural vibe up here,” Bryner told supervisors.

What volunteers came to realize is that many people are escaping places like Tahoe because of the crowds. And it’s not hard to find wide open and private spaces locally. Plumas is ideal for families. There are golden opportunities to spend time on the lakes and play in the rivers and streams, as well as hiking and camping opportunities.

And it’s all about the type of people the county attracts. Plumas attracts people who like to go their own way, Bryner explained. Its undeveloped lands attract those that are more free-spirited. “We’re champions of it (the land) and consider ourselves stewards of it,” she said about those who live here.

The events — whether a music festival, a local parade or an arts and crafts fair — are more laid back. And there is a lot of history, and there’s the nostalgia.

According to FRTA, what’s needed to help the plan along is funding to kick-start this all-important spring and summer, right after the months of restrictions caused by COVID-19. Waiting until late summer or next fall means that Plumas County loses a valuable season of tourism dollars. Those dollars benefit not only the businesses where people lodge and eat, but tourism draws dollars to shops, grocery stores, service stations and other establishments. Tourism also brings in county revenues in the form of sales tax and TOT.

FRTA efforts have developed a five-year projection annually from the new website. Visitors to the website could increase incrementally. “Assuming 10 percent are influenced to visit, it would mean potential lodging revenue between $2.4 million and $6.1 million generated just through the Feather River Tourism efforts,” Bryner explained.

Lodging revenue projections were also presented to supervisors. “Projections are based on website user growth using an estimated 10 percent influence to visit rate,” she said. This is based on an average two-day stay at $107 Average Daily Rate and a two percent inflation rate.

FRTA’s plans from July 2021 to June 2022 include the overall goal of creating a strong foundation and brand. Its objectives — providing there is funding to do it — is to hire a part-time marketing manager, develop a viable one-year budget, establish regular communication with lodging providers, establish a communication timeline with residents, continue to create a dynamic website and capture strong visual assets through photos and videos.

Until the recession hit in 2008, supervisors funded a tourism department at more than $300,000. Since that time, it has been left to local organizations and businesses to get the word out about their facilities and events.

Directors of FRTA include Kleven, Bryner, Jeff Titcomb, Sharon Roberts, Shelly Hunter, Todd Geer and Janice Haman.

Plumas County supervisors weigh in

After listening to the presentation from FRTA of the Plumas County Board of Supervisors discussed the item, but decided to take more time and determine if funding can be found within county coffers for a request to kick-off the tourism season now, not later. The discussion will resume May 4. In the presentation, FRTA vice-chair Susan Bryner requested $50,000 to position the organization in becoming more proactive this spring.

 

Request letter

The $50,000 is for start-up funds, according to FRTA Chair Karen Kleven. “These funds will give FRTA the ability to begin implementing the region’s strategic marketing plan six months ahead of expected district revenues (in May instead of November 2021).

As a note of explanation, FRTA oversees the Feather River Tourism Marketing District.

To implement a strategic marketing plan, FRTA explained what needs to happen:

1) Complete branding and website development by December. This creates an opportunity to show an increase in lodging revenues and county tax revenues by 2022. “Without early start-up funding all is delayed during a period in which county businesses are in critical need of additional support.”

2) Maintain and increase critical support and enthusiasm of lodging providers and other stakeholders for the marketing strategy.

3) Implement a mini-Fall colors campaign in October and November this year “to enhance tourism revenue during a shoulder season.” Shoulder season refers to those months on either side of what’s considered the peak or high season. Traditionally summer is the peak season with spring and fall being known as the shoulder seasons.

In order to implement the plan a marketing coordinator is necessary. “It cannot be done with volunteers,” Kleven explained.

During the first six years, it took volunteers $45,000 to form the district, according to the letter.  “Intended to increase the revenues of one of the top three economic engines in Plumas County, was fully staffed by volunteers and paid for by private funds and loans,” Kleven wrote. “This request, made to the county, is to utilize a portion of public funds to kick start a much-needed economic development opportunity for our county that will also enhance public revenues.”

Discussion

District 4 Supervisor Greg Hagwood immediately suggested that the county loan FRTA the funds and it be responsible to pay it back possibly within two years.

Bryner said the group is willing to accept anything they can get.

Hagwood said that as a county it has an obligation to support others. Doing so in advance of the season makes sense.

Plumas County Tax Collector Julie White recommended waiting. Among other situations, White is interested in learning if the state offers contracts to counties to collect TOT (transient occupancy tax) and return it to the counties. White also pointed out that there are budget concerns brought on by COVID-19. Also, as a member of the county’s budget committee, she said she’s “not sure it’s the appropriate time.” Returning in August with the request might be better timing.

County Administrator Gabriel Hydrick said he has several concerns. Under the FRTA only “half of the county” is represented. Last year when the organization made its pitch to Plumas County, a number of the resorts and accommodations in eastern Plumas County didn’t want to be involved. District 1 Supervisor Dwight Ceresola said he has been talking with those people in his district and that might change.

Hydrick also said that if organizers of FRTA had given him or supervisors more notice that they wanted funding, he might have had better answers for them.

And Hydrick is concerned with some big bills that Plumas County must pay. With construction set to begin on the new Plumas County Correctional Center this July the county is looking to meet $4 million in bill obligations.  That’s up from $2.7 million, Hydrick said. He also said that special districts are running deficits. And Hydrick’s uncertain how much Cal/OSHA’s COVID-19 will cost Plumas County.

Human Resources Director Nancy Selvage said the county is also required to pay its unfunded liability that is more than $3 million. Next year’s payment is going up to $4 million she indicated.

Hydrick said he could look at new funding sources such as the American Rescue Plan, a new federal resource, but he’s not certain what it will allow.

Hagwood persisted in his effort to have other supervisors understand that the county needs to spend money to make money. By loaning FRTA $50,000 or whatever amount was agreed upon, the county was involved in helping attract tourism dollars to the area.

Clint Koble, a member of the Lake Almanor Chamber of Commerce, told supervisors “that it was hard for me to understand,” why they weren’t immediately on board with FRTA’s funding request. He said it’s a matter of looking at “what’s going to create the most money in the end.”

Also an advisor with the Sierra Small Business Development Center in Truckee, Koble said earlier that “every business I talk to is going to re-invest” in their business this year. “We have to invest in our businesses, we have to invest in our economic engine.”

With relaxed restrictions for COVID-19, many in the Supervisors’ chambers agreed that people are anxious to get out and travel. Making Plumas County a destination spot is one of the goals of bringing funding into the area. According to Bryner and members of FRTA, the spring is the time to attract tourists, not late summer or the fall.

Hagwood said that with people emerging from the COVID-19 disaster “people are ripe to travel to visit,” places.

Willing to allow a county group to examine revenue sources to see if there’s a possibility of finding funding for FRTA, supervisors tabled a vote. When Bryner asked who would be included in the discussions, Engel as chairperson, said it would be an in-county team of directors. Hydrick said the special group could include a supervisor or two and someone from FRTA in a second discussion of the special group.

 

TOT use

One bone of contention is how Plumas County manages its TOT funding. Currently and for a number of years previously, to meet economic needs during the recession, supervisors voted to use it TOT for its General Fund. Hydrick pointed out that law enforcement and roads are paid for out of the General Fund, therefore visitors to the area benefit by both.

Looking at how TOT is currently used, Hydrick said that it would be ideal to take FRTA’s funding request from that source of income. “Are we there yet? I don’t think we’re there yet,” he said.

Others argued that now is the time to promote tourism in Plumas County. As a small business owner in Greenville, District 2 Supervisor Kevin Goss said that attracting people to the area is important in a COVID-19 recovery sense.

District 3 Supervisor Sherri Thrall said she’s the one who encouraged members of FRTA to make the presentation before the board. She’s all for supporting the organization’s efforts, but she is uncertain if Plumas County can loan a group funding. She wants county counsel to research that possibility. Goss also agreed that anything supervisors approve must be legal.

“I feel like the father in the grocery store,” District 5 Supervisor Jeff Engel said. “We can only afford some meat and bread,” yet the kids want a candy bar. He added that he was also blindsided by the request for funding.

Engel pointed out that last year supervisors approved a new computer system that would help the tax collector’s office sort separate TOT taxes district by district. Bryner pointed out that the computer system the county was using was from the 1970s and was out of date.

 

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