Consultant hired, steering committee established to create destination management plan

The first efforts to establish a tourism destination management plan for Columbia County are underway.

A roughly 20-member steering committee has been formed and a consultant has been hired to help establish a two-year plan for the county. Planning efforts are part of Travel Oregon's Regional Cooperative Tourism Program. The program aims to create a plan for how to spend hotel tax dollars by identifying and helping to develop tourist destinations and attractions in designated counties, including Columbia County.

SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - JJ Duehren of Scappoose hikes with her dog along the Crown Zellerbach Trail. The trail is one of the most notable natural features in Columbia County and could be a key asset in tourism marketing.Earlier this year, just under $51,000 was allocated to Columbia County for planning efforts. Nearly all of that money was used to hire Alison Hart, who runs A. Hart Associates, a development and marketing firm in Portland.

Hart, along with the newly established steering committee, will be tasked with developing the county's plan.

The tourism funds are being managed by the Columbia County Economic Team.

"No county-wide tourism program currently exists to serve the communities of Columbia County so CCET is leading an initiative to develop a permanent program for identifying, coordinating and leading county-wide tourism industry objectives," Allison Keeney, global communications manager for Travel Oregon, explained.

Chuck Daughtry, executive director of CCET, says the steering committee represents a wide cross-section of county residents and includes the county's chambers of commerce, but some have called for a process that allows for greater public input on decisions that will drive spending of tourism tax dollars.

"We had a stakeholder meeting in Rainier," Daughtry noted. "We've got a pretty representative sample now of stakeholders. We sent out applications for people to apply for a steering committee. We made sure we had geographical representation in there, hotels and businesses that have tourism related stuff, and then we were looking for some sex diversity and age diversity."

While Daughtry and others maintain the process isn't meant to be secretive or exclusive, they say the planning meetings likely won't be run like a typical public meeting.

Part of the planning process will identify county assets. Daughtry says natural resources, like the Crown Zellerbach Trail, and waterfront areas will likely be called out. The state's plan aims to find features that attract visitors all year long, rather than the visitation spikes from temporary or seasonal events.

"I think the thought is that things like Halloweentown are very important events and big draws for people, but we need a more holistic look at tourism," says Simon Date, executive director of the South Columbia County Chamber of Commerce and steering committee member. Date says this isn't the first attempt at marketing the county to tourists, but it could be the most significant.

"People are very aware that this may be the last chance to get it right," Date said.

To do that, there needs to be a clear plan with a long-term outlook.

"Our first [goal] is to make a list of assets that people would come to Columbia County for and what are the priorities?" Daughtry said. "There's not a single campground on the river in Columbia County."

Date says things like hiking, fishing, hunting and waterfront camping or recreation could set the region apart, but the county could also use more restaurants and hotels to accommodate visitors.

"Our tourism initiative here is just awful," Daughtry said. "We have nowhere to go but up."

The tourism committee is scheduled to meet again at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 9 at the Best Western hotel in St. Helens.

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