What drives tourists to Columbia County?
That's a question soon to be tackled as county and city leaders brainstorm how to spend about $51,000 in funding from a recently created Regional Cooperative Tourism Program.
Columbia County is poised to receive funding from the RCTP, which dictates a portion of the 1.8 percent hotel-based state lodging taxes received by the state get diverted back to the respective counties where they were generated. Typically, the hotel taxes go to help fund Travel Oregon.
The RCTP funds will likely be used to develop a plan and identify the county's tourist destinations and resources.
"The seven Regional Destination Management Organizations (RDMOs) recognized by Travel Oregon develop and submit regional plans and proposals for use of state dollars," explains Allison Keeney of Travel Oregon. "Each RDMO develops and enacts a two-year tourism destination management plan that involves the input of regional tourism stakeholders and Travel Oregon."
Keeney notes that the funds must be spent on programs or projects that support Travel Oregon's strategic plan.
The majority of the county's hotel tax revenue comes from St. Helens.
St. Helens City Administrator John Walsh says the city has long made tourism and marketing a priority, but the state and Travel Portland — the tourism branch of Travel Oregon that represents Columbia County — haven't always taken notice of what goes on in the county.
"Travel Portland's 2017-19 plan was adopted as if nothing was going on in St. Helens," Walsh says. "We had been running Discover Columbia County for decades."
In recent years, the city hired an events manager and went big on efforts to organize month-long fall festivities, playing up the city's history as a filming location for the 1990s Disney TV movie, "Halloweentown."
Walsh says he feels the current planning process will improve the county's position in regional tourism marketing.
"The approach is going to be to create a county-wide asset inventory," Walsh notes. "I think there will be a good plan here."
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest draws the county has to offer is its outdoor recreation.
Tanner Preciado, general manager of Scappoose Bay Paddling Center, says the business, which rents kayaking and paddling equipment from a waterfront shop and is owned by Portland's Next Adventure, is a big draw for tourists.
"The majority of customers we see come from outside the county," Preciado says. "Some come from Hillsboro and the west side, others from the Portland area."
According to the paddling center, 2,700 customers served in 2017 were from Portland. Another 500 were from Beaverton, 350 from Hillsboro, 100 from Tigard and about 800 from within Columbia County.
Preciado says aside from being easily accessible from the Portland metro area, Scappoose Bay has a lot to offer.
"Part of it is that it's a unique place to paddle," Preciado says. "There's nowhere else quite like it. It's also a very beginner-friendly place to paddle."
In addition to water-based adventure activities, visitors also flock to Columbia County for the Crown Zellerbach Trail, which offers easy hiking and bicycling along a nature path, as well as county parks that offer camping and lodges.
"That's one of the things we hope comes out of the plan is what we can do with outdoor recreational opportunities here," says Chuck Daughtry, executive director of the Columbia County Economic Team.
Daughtry says having the money to develop tourism
marketing plans could lead
to much-needed state dollars that could boost the county's economic return from visit-
"We anticipate it will be about $30,000 a year at a minimum going forward," Daughtry said of future RCTP funds. "I think the real objective here is to use this money to position ourselves to be in better shape for the Travel Oregon grant program."
He said there will likely be a stakeholder meeting with the managers from each of the county's five incorporated cities to help guide spending decisions.
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