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Festivals draw visitors to St. Helens, but tourism still a work in progress

by: SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Visitors and St. Helens residents watched the Portland Sternwheeler come in to the St. Helens City Docks at the Maritime Heritage Festival last summer. More than 8,000 people attended the festival, said the city's tourism director Chris Finks.An annual tourism report gave St. Helens city councilors an idea of what tourism in the city could look like, but there is still a lot of work to be done, they said after the May 15 meeting.

“St. Helens has to be a destination and we have to figure out what makes St. Helens a destination,” said Mayor Randy Peterson. “I don’t know if we’ve figured that out yet.”

The city’s Tourism Director Chris Finks reported that last year’s Maritime Heritage Festival, the Pirate Festival and Halloweentown drew in thousands of people, many of them local, but a large number from out of town too. The events have provided a venue for vendors and brought business to local restaurants and stores, guests to hotels and bed and breakfast spots. Last year, St. Helens restaurants reported record sales during the Portland Pirate Festival, Finks said.

“Tourism is economic development,” he told the City Council.

Besides festivals, Finks plans to actively recruit groups interested in holding meetings and retreats in St. Helens this year.

Councilor Susan Conn, who owns a small bookstore and coffee shop in Olde Towne St. Helens, says out-of-town visitors often pass through her store.

“They think we’re quaint and they think we’re charming and we’re still distilling what that is,” she said.

“What are the givens in our community?” said Councilor Doug Morten. “The givens are: we do have wind, and we do have water.”

After Finks’ presentation, Morten pointed to numerous coastal and riverside communities in Oregon that have completely revitalized their cities by tapping into what they already have and making these things attractive to visitors: wind surfing in Hood River as well as kite festivals and sand castle building competitions in Seaside, for example. In many of these instances, increased tourism went hand-in-hand with increased quality of life for residents, he said.

This year, upcoming festivals include the Maritime Heritage Festival, scheduled for July 26 - 27; the Portland Pirate Festival is putting together a smaller event this year with the pirate ship replica the Royaliste expected to make an appearance during the Labor Day Weekend.