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7/6/2003

Destination Longmont

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — Considering tourism is this state’s second-largest economic driver, some feel it’s high time Longmont got into the game.

Despite its strategic position halfway between a major interstate highway and world-class mountains, Longmont has done little to encourage people to stop and spend money here before traveling on.

That may change: A fledging effort is afoot to launch a tourism committee, although few have probably heard about it yet.

“I probably have five to 10 people stopping in each day (asking about the city),” said Linda Ryan, manager at Longmont Dairy. “I had three big groups of bikers in here just last weekend.”

Longmont Dairy acts as the city’s de facto tourism office. “Tourist information” signs directed at westbound travelers on Colo. Highway 66 point visitors to Longmont Dairy, where inside they’ll find a small corner of the store devoted to tourist information.

At least there’s finally a rack in there containing information on Longmont. Previously, there had been just one rack with virtually no information on the city.

Brochures advertising Royal Gorge, “Historic Golden” and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science were there, but nothing about Longmont.

“That used to be all we had, and people would say, ‘What do we have in Longmont?’” said Ryan.

The new rack was installed by the Longmont Area Tourism Association — an upstart group that’s been meeting since January.

“The thing we’re fighting is nobody’s going to give us any money until we form this association, and we can’t form this association until someone gives us some money,” said Bill Weiberg, general manager at the Marriott Residence Inn.

He and Joey Kee, director of sales for the Residence Inn and the Courtyard at Marriott, are two of the people who have been working to get the LATA off the ground.

“There’s a lot of different ways to attack this,” said Weiberg. “Our plan of attack now is to form this (nonprofit) association and begin collecting these dues.”

The group has held several meetings with representatives from various city agencies and private businesses.

“There’s probably a lot of people out there that want to be involved in this that just don’t know about it yet, because it is so grass-roots,” said Weiberg.

In a customer-satisfaction survey last year, city officials asked residents if they would favor the introduction of a lodging tax with some of the money going toward the promotion of Longmont as a tourist destination.

Results of that survey, along with input from local hotel and motel operators on the proposed tax, will be presented to City Council on July 15.

“It’s a concept, and it’s only a concept,” said City Manager Gordon Pedrow. “Therefore nothing is solid on the 15th.”

He said that after hearing results of the citizens’ survey and what hotel and motel owners have to say, the City Council “will then discuss the concept of whether they’re even interested in a tax of any sort.”

Pedrow said that during meetings with representatives from the local lodging industry, “there were opinions addressed on both sides of the issue.”

Ultimately, the lodging tax would need voter approval. If the council decides to put it on the ballot, Pedrow said, “it could be used as either revenue generated for the general fund or it could be designated for any specific purpose. And certainly if the council wanted it dedicated for a specific purpose, it would be so noted in the ballot language.”

Meanwhile, members of LATA have put two prospective budgets together, one that would include funding from a lodging tax and another without it.

The difference is dramatic: Including lodging tax money, LATA’s preliminary budget is $321,000; without it, the budget is $71,000.

The city has projected that a lodging tax would raise about $95,000 a year for every 1 percent levied.

The Longmont Area Chamber of Commerce has issued a position statement in favor of the lodging tax, but only if all of the tax goes to promote the tourism effort.

“We need to have this discussion in the community (about) what could be done,” said Doug Cole, president and chief executive officer of the chamber. “There’s no doubt that increasing visitorship to Longmont would increase the city’s economic vitality.”

Cole said the chamber’s involvement, if any, in a tourism promotion effort remains to be seen.

“I think there’s a spectrum of possibilities here,” Cole said. “At the one end of the spectrum, we could help them with mailings and help publicize it to our members and so forth. And on the other end of the spectrum, I could see us doing something like Boulder — housing it in the chamber building and having it be a part of the chamber.”

From humble beginnings ...

The Boulder Convention and Visitors Bureau was founded in 1985 and has grown to four full-time employees. Executive director Mary Ann Mahoney said it took several groups coming together to get it started.

“It really was the hotels and the chamber of commerce, because they tried to do this on a voluntary basis — taking donations — and it was really a struggle,” Mahoney said. “They were always forced to be out there trying to raise funds. And there were models out there in existence.”

Mahoney’s group receives a half-cent on each dollar from the city’s 5.5 percent accommodations tax, and an additional .15 cents on each dollar from a tax self-imposed by the city’s restaurateurs.

This year’s budget for Boulder’s convention and visitors bureau is $613,000.

Lyons takes the leap

The tourism effort in Lyons is different in that it is entirely self-funded.

“A million people drive through each year, if not more,” said Chastidee Cook, executive director of the Lyons Chamber of Commerce. “We feel if we can get just a small percentage of people to stop, it could make a huge difference.”

Cook’s position didn’t even exist six months ago. She said the chamber’s board decided tourism was important enough to the town’s coffers to hire someone full-time.

One of the reasons Cook was hired was to overhaul the visitors’ guide put out by the chamber. Rather than partner on the guide with the local newspaper and distribute it only in Lyons, as had been done in the past, the chamber decided to put out the guide itself — outsourcing the printing and no longer sharing the advertising revenue.

Cook, who has been hired to work year-round, said the ad revenue helps pay her salary.

“Right now, this is solely a chamber function,” Cook said. “Currently, we do not benefit from any tax revenues through the town.”

The glossy-covered tabloid — with a cover shot of mountain bikers cruising down a trail in front of Lyons’ famed red-rock cliffs — is now distributed in all eight Colorado welcome centers, and as far north as Cheyenne, Wyo.

It’s even at the Longmont Dairy.

“What we’re hoping is our business community can see the benefit of having somebody full-time,” Cook said, adding that in the past, a volunteer secretary used to come into the visitors’ center twice a week and check messages.

“We’ve had people call in the day they were leaving and say, ‘I’m looking for a place to stay tonight. Can you help me?’” she said. “I think having a person here that can answer the phone or call them back in an hour — I think that’s valuable.”

Longmont’s tourism future?

A survey taken by the Longmont Area Chamber of Commerce found that 80 percent of its members expressed “some level of support” for a lodging tax. More than three-quarters of those members favor using some or all of the tax to promote tourism in Longmont.

But some are firmly against the idea. One bed and breakfast owner told City Council in March that such a tax would amount to “penalizing an industry” that has been devastated since Sept. 11, 2001.

Whatever becomes of the lodging tax, it appears that if LATA or another group like it doesn’t organize to formally promote the city, most of the tourism dollars that flow into the town will continue doing so by accident.

Ryan tells the story of how recently, a group of motorcyclists stopped at the dairy on their way up to Estes Park — attracted more by the thought of ice cream than by any tourist information signs.

Ryan suggested that the bikers call ahead, this being the tourist season.

“Their rooms were $125 a night, so they ended up staying in Longmont,” Ryan said.

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.