We knew the recent election would lead to some serious consequences within Colorado Springs city government. We knew the next round of budget cuts for 2010 would cause more pain and angst than before.
So it was probably inevitable that City Council, in its neverending quest to find money that might lessen the impact on some top-priority areas, would push its limits and perhaps even go too far.
Such was the case earlier this month, when Councilors took aim at the funding for Experience Colorado Springs, the fancy name for our convention and visitors bureau. Council decided to reduce its allotment by about 25 percent, or about $575,000, and there was some sentiment for taking away even more.
It's not as though the convention and visitors bureau has been breezing along, immune from other recent cuts. Just a few years ago, Experience Colorado Springs was getting $4 million.
But this reduction is simply going too far, taking the CVB's budget down to about $2.4 million, its lowest level since the mid-1990s.
In a city that desperately needs successful tourism to survive and thrive, it's not smart to cut back any more on funding for the one local operation that focuses nationally on bringing in more visitors to the area. In fact, it's counterproductive, and downright foolhardy.
These tougher economic times have heightened the competition for tourism, from the events that bring thousands of travelers here for a week or a weekend, to the promotional campaigns and efforts that convince families from Kansas or Texas to drive here on their vacations.
Just go online and you can easily find highly enticing Web sites luring visitors to Western destinations such as San Diego, Boise, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Des Moines and more, not even counting the many places inside Colorado that depend just as much on tourism as Colorado Springs does.
If we don't stay aggressive in marketing ourselves, families and conventions won't continue to appear magically at our front door.
Something else: The money that goes to Experience Colorado Springs isn't coming out of our pockets. Much of it comes from our lodgers and auto rental tax (LART), a surcharge for visitors staying in our hotels and motels or rental cars. It's an add-on for guests, something that cities everywhere do, creating a revenue source for furthering the local tourism industry. In fact, the actual 1980 city ordinance that set up the LART defines its purpose as "to attract visitors and to enhance the economy" of the city and, actually, the surrounding region.
Taking that money and applying it to, say, parks or transit might be well-intentioned, but it's also shortsighted and just plain wrong.
We've been hearing repeatedly from the many who claim they no longer trust the local government, but most of them also say (loudly) that they don't mind some taxes as long as they know exactly where the money's going. Well, everyone knows that the LART tax is all about promoting tourism, so why divert that money elsewhere? How is that any different from the idea — which more than 35,000 voters rejected last spring — of using Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) money to maintain all city parks and trails, instead of just the ones purchased with TOPS money?
The CVB folks will insist that every dollar that goes into developing local tourism produces a $90 payback in economic impact, based on number of visitors and the average amount that they spend here. Obviously that's an estimate, and sometimes a skeptic might wonder if those economic impact numbers really are that high. To me, the CVB makes a stronger case with its argument that each dollar it spends on tourism generates more than $2.25 in local tax revenue.
There are some on City Council who understand all that, and I've heard members as different as Jan Martin and Tom Gallagher telling their colleagues that it's not wise to be making deep budget cuts in places that directly produce revenue for Colorado Springs. Yet, the Council's planned reduction for the CVB remains, with only a couple more weeks remaining until Council's final budget vote.
Granted, finding $600,000 from another budget cubbyhole wouldn't be easy at this late stage. But it's worth the try.
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