State has $8.7 billion tourism industry
By Jennifer Jenks
A diverse group of Harney County citizens gathered Jan. 17 to discuss tourism realities and strategies for the county at a meeting hosted by Travel Oregon and facilitated by Randy Harrington of the Eugene-based Strategic Arts & Sciences.
The meeting was one of many “Stakeholder Facilitated Conversations” Travel Oregon is hosting around the state. The Oregon Tourism Commission, doing business as Travel Oregon, is a semi-independent agency created by the Oregon Legislature in 2003 to “enhance Oregonian’s quality of life by strengthening economic impacts of the state’s $8.7 billion tourism industry,” according to their website. A nine-member board appointed by the governor, the Oregon Tourism Commission, governs the Travel Oregon staff and programs.
The agency is funded by a 1 percent statewide transient lodging tax.
Those attending included representatives from the county court, both cities, the Burns Paiute Tribe and federal agencies, as well as business owners and community volunteers. Some were born and raised in Harney County, while others were more recent transplants, and they came from a variety of backgrounds. All in all, a large segment of the Harney County population was represented, and the participants brought a variety of ideas to the table to encourage tourism in the area.
Travel Oregon CEO Todd Davidson opened the meeting by expressly thanking the elected officials for taking the time to attend, “Not a lot of elected officials show up to our meetings, so I wanted to say we really appreciate your being here.”
The meeting, Harrington then explained, was being held to listen to Oregonians about the challenges they face in their communities and their plans and goals for overcoming them. The goal was to help drive Travel Oregon’s strategic planning process.
Harrington had everyone split into groups to discuss five topics: socio-economics, challenges / opportunities, planning, value proposition and Travel Oregon. The groups discussed the topics amongst themselves and then shared their ideas with the other groups, facilitated by Harrington.
The first question discussed was what the socio-economic realities impacting the future of the community are. Some of the thoughts brought up were getting people who already come here to stay, lack of opportunities (recreational, development, etc.), decrease in travel statewide, restrictions by federal agencies, location (isolated), loss of the younger population, great school system, low crime rate, low economic development, lack of transportation, great geology and abundant wildlife.
One table noted that more trails in the forest could open the doors for more tourism. Another said we needed to capitilize on the recreational opportunities we already have here, as well, noting people could provide guided tours and there could be a rental shop for bikes and snowmobiles.
The groups next discussed what challenges and opportunities they saw for the community / region. One challenge brought up was that there is not a good dissemination of information regarding where trails are located, and that signs needed to be put up.
Another was that there were so many different organizations, some working toward the same goals, that don’t work together, noting that they could go a lot further if they all worked together. Harney County Judge Steve Grasty interjected, “On a positive note, this community has a great legacy of volunteering.”
A third challenge noted was the lack of work opportunities. It was argued that with 56 percent of the population working for the government here, it is not sustainable. An idea was brought forth to attract businesses here that fit with the lifestyle, and that the businesses would probably do better if they were recruited with that in mind.
Opportunities noted included bicyclists, military troop convoys coming through this summer at which vendors could peddle their wares, historic buildings and areas, motorcyclists, hunters and outdoor recreationists. One table talked about the variety of festivals, some of which have stopped or fizzled out over the years, including Scottie or Hilander Day, the Basque Festival, Powwow and the Jamboree and suggested having a sort of Scottish-Basque-Paiute-Fiddlers Day to showcase all the heritage in Harney County.
Other ideas included having a Trucker Day to support the truckers who travel through on highways 20 and 395 and celebrating what we already have here. “We’re a muscular town, we’re not Sisters,” said Sue Kovar, a volunteer for the Main Street Program. “We should celebrate what fits our lifestyle.”
The third topic asked the groups to question what their current plan to overcome / realize the challenges and opportunities in front of them was. One table thought the county should have one person with the responsibility of building relationships between groups and bringing them together.
Another noted the county needed to focus on finding the “right” person to tell our story to the “right” people to attract visitors here. They pointed out a lot more rifle events, long range shoots, and tactical shoots could be held and that might also attract manufactureres who fit with the Harney County lifestyle. They suggested the plan should be to narrow down what the problems and concerns are that are most imperative to be addressed so everone can be on the same page.
Another suggestion was to focus energy on educating and informing others about what Harney County is and what it has to offer. “Everywhere I go, there’s a pamphlet on jet boats on the Rogue River,” Hines City Adminstrator Joan Davies said. “We need something like that.”
The fourth topic was what the tourism differentiator / unique value proposition for the community is. Harney County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jen Hoke said she thought the county’s top-drawing attractions were on public land – hunting, birding, the Steens Mountain, the Malheur National Widlife Refuge.
Regarding birding, it was noted that some people associate “birders” with environmentalists and there are divisive feelings there.
Denny Thomas, owner of B&B Sporting Goods, noted the hunting in Harney County is diverse, with varmints, birds and big game. “Most places don’t have that variety,” he said.
In addition to the Steens and the refuge, other attractions noted were the Round Barn, Frenchglen, Diamond Craters, Alvord Desert, hot springs, forest, desert, fishing and camping. It was noted we have the highest 10K race in Oregon, the Steens Rim Run, and there is also the Steens Mountain Running Camp. There is a local orchestra and choir, and the Harney County Arts in Education Foundation has been bringing outside talent in.
Events that draw tourists include the Bird Festival, which Hoke stated kicks off Harney County’s tourist season, the Jamboree, Obsidian Days, the Desert Dash Rally (which no longer takes place), the Quilt Show (which also stopped, but an Art Walk was started to replace it), Saturday Market, the fair and rodeo, 4th of July parade, Basque Festival, Chili Cookoff and the Christmas events.
The final topic of the afternoon was what Travel Oregon can specifically do to most effectively support this community. Burns Mayor Craig LaFollette said when people think about Oregon, they think about the coast, Multnomah Falls, things like that. “We feel like we don’t matter out here,” he said, “as if we don’t have a lot to offer.” He said he would like to have Travel Oregon as an advocate to tell others what we have here.
Hoke added that Travel Oregon could help identify the best market for our county. “They are the expert in telling the Oregon story,” she said. “How do we get the most bang for our buck?”
“I see huge potential here,” Harrington noted, “but frustration because you know what you have, but no one else does.”
“I think we have all the pieces to make this happen,” Hoke said. “It’s just how do we put them together?”
Davidson said the results of the statewide meeting would be discussed at the governor’s tourism conference later this year and will be used to help inform the long-term strategic direction of Travel Oregon and Oregon’s Tourism and Hospitality Industry Consortium.
Travel Oregon holds webinars throughout the year at various locations around the state. For more information about Travel oregon, visit industry.traveloregon.com or traveloregon.com