Wilsonville officials grapple with tourism impacts of pandemic
Entertainment options and regional draws in Wilsonville appear to be dwindling.
First there was the closure of Wilsonville Lanes, the city's lone bowling alley for many years (before Bulwinkle's added an alley). Then, in mid May, an even bigger gut punch rocked the community — World of Speed, one of the most popular museums regionally, also announced permanent closure.
Officials the Spokesman chatted with said the pandemic could have a long-term impact on tourism and warranted a revamp of strategy. Some were also frustrated with the government's response.
"Someone said we know travel is resilient and know it will come back and there's a light at the end of the tunnel. We just don't know how long the tunnel is," said Samara Phelps, the executive director of the Clackamas County marketing organization Mt. Hood Territory. "Our industry is built on entrepreneurs and small businesses. The longer that tunnel is the harder it is to be there for the recovery on the other side ... That uncertainty about when and how things open is a top concern of us as an industry."
According to a visitor profile study the Wilsonville government conducted in 2018, 12% of overnight tourists visited World of Speed during their stay. Other nearby attractions like Bridgeport Village, Champoeg State Park and Bulwinkle's were more popular according to that survey, but World of Speed was still one of the most popular destinations. World of Speed also served as an event space and provided training for local students interested in working in the automotive industry.
"It's an irreplaceable museum," said Kevin Ferrasci O'Malley, the CEO of the Wilsonville Chamber of Commerce. "It had unique opportunities to draw people to the area and that's gone and we'll have to work hard to replace it."
And Phelps said the closure of World of Speed could hamper other businesses that rely on tourism for revenue.
"We were all shocked and disheartened to see World of Speed make that announcement because for Wilsonville and for the valley and us in the region, World of Speed was a trip motivator and was a reason to come into that community," she said. "You can't get that experience somewhere else … Without it we'll see the ripple effect from a leisure, visitor standpoint, events, lodging, restaurants and other properties that benefited (from it)."
With the closure of World of Speed, the city's biggest entertainment options might be Bulwinkle's and Regal Cinemas — both of which were forced to temporarily close amid the pandemic. One of the challenges for these facilities is that they will likely be the last to reopen due to the dense crowds they attract. And World of Speed co-founder Sally Bany indicated the likely extended period of time before the museum would be allowed to reopen was one reason for the decision to close permanently.
However, Bulwinkle's General Manager Darren Harmon was confident that the entertainment complex would not permanently close anytime soon and thought it would qualify for phase two of the reopening process, which would take place 21 days after phase one if counties meet certain guidelines.
Clackamas County applied for phase one of reopening, which would include the reopening of establishments like restaurants and gyms, this week but hasn't been approved by the state.
Harmon sent a reopening proposal to the county, which includes reducing maximum capacity by 50% (about 500 people). However, that would shrink to 100 under phase two guidelines.
"We're ready as soon as they'll let us open back up," Harmon said.
The Spokesman reached out to Regal Cinemas for comment but the theater chain did not respond.
Prior to Clackamas County's announcement that it was applying for phase one reopening, Harmon waited anxiously for direction from the county. Both Harmon and O'Malley were frustrated by the lack of clarity from state and county governments.
"What I'm hearing from the business community is they don't have any solid understanding that Salem is at all considering the catastrophic business disaster that is part and parcel with the health challenges (of the pandemic)," he said. "Do public officials have to, as public policy people, consider health issues? Of course they do. There have been enough decisions made and guidelines that are fuzzy that do not allow businesses to operate and plan for the future. If businesses can't effectively plan for the future there is no future for those businesses and those jobs are gone forever."
As for monetary relief, city of Wilsonville Public Affairs Director Mark Ottenad posited that the idea of government coffers buoying some of these larger complexes might be unrealistic. The city's business relief program did not apply to businesses with over 20 employees.
"I'm not sure if the taxpayer has enough resources to keep businesses afloat," he said. "The scale of the need is so great, as was demonstrated with the city Wilsonville's small business relief grant program where $400,000 flew out in no time and that likely was just a fraction of the need out there."
The city of Wilsonville was in the throes of redeveloping a tourism strategy and had recently hired the marketing and advertising company JAYRAY to assist with those efforts when the pandemic struck.
It also was crafting a plan for the development of a new event facility and an attached hotel that could be a tourist attraction in the future. However, that plan has been shelved for the foreseeable future and the city also cut its tourism and promotion budget in half, Ottenad said.
"We got nine proposals from consultants all over the U.S.," Ottenad said. "We screened them. We interviewed four. We were about ready to choose one and then the COVID thing hit and it was obvious for this thing to be postponed."
Though the Wilsonville government would like to bolster the city's tourism viability with more local attractions, its main strategy is to position Wilsonville as a place to lodge while visiting attractions outside of town like wine country, Portland and Champoeg Park. One incentive for cities to promote tourism is increased Tourism and Lodging tax revenue.
"One of Wilsonville's major selling points is its affordability compared to Portland and other cities nearby. It's still a great place for overnight accommodations in the heart of it all,"
said JAYRAY Principal Bridget Baeth.
They're also establishing a phased approach for tourism promotion, focusing first on promoting businesses virtually, then extending out to Washington and Clackamas County and eventually expanding further to what is reachable within a two-to-three-hour drive.
Both Phelps and Baeth said that with few people traveling across outside of their home state or country, encouraging locals to visit tourist destinations will be vital during the pandemic.
"As the state has taken on the phased reopening county by county it's really putting that focus on supporting your local businesses and activities as appropriate for your community and your county," Phelps said. "It's hyper localized."
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