Island at crossroads with tourism dollars

t New alliance shaping direction of island tourism.

Get your Bainbridge Island T-shirts, collectors mugs and Frog Rock postcards.

Tourism on the island is booming and so is lodging-tax revenue, which is raising questions about the best way to spend tax funds without squandering the island’s appeal to locals and tourists.

The lodging-tax fund has been growing since the 1990s, when Bainbridge adopted a version of Washington State’s lodging tax that ensures four percent of a hefty 10.6 percent sales/lodging tax returns to the city as a credit.

With the recent string of new hotels and inns on the island, lodging-tax revenue has more than doubled since 2004, growing from $55,420 to $115,335 in 2007 and making tourism one of the healthiest, reliable revenue streams coming into the cash-strapped city.

But there is a catch – money garnered through lodging taxes dump into a designated fund that can be spent only on tourism promotion activities or tourism-related facilities. Projects that fall under this designation are vetted by the city’s seven-person Lodging Tax Advisory Council (LTAC), before being approved by the City Council.

With so much revenue and so many competing businesses looking to rake in tourist dollars, it is a crucial time to determine how Bainbridge will handle the fund and the influx of visitors.

For Bonnie Anisoglu, a two-year LTAC member who co-owns the Eagle Harbor Inn with her husband, Bainbridge is at a crossroads. Her business alone generated $14,500 for the city in 2007, money she feels needs to be directed towards a sustainable and consensus-built approach to island tourism.

“I don’t think any of us want to see Bainbridge turn into Leavenworth or Disneyland,” Anisoglu said. “But, we have no real strategy... what values should our (tourism) materials represent? Do we want to encourage green vacations, or bird-watching groups?”

Anisoglu said many of the applications for lodging-tax funds come from individual businesses looking to fix signs and update brochures, but that there is a lack of projects that will benefit island tourism as a whole.

Lodging-tax funds are going to be a highly visible in a community that may feel tourism encroaches on the very essence of Bainbridge living. Barry Peters, council member and voting member on the LTAC committee, believes it is time for lodging-tax funds to be used towards some kind of capital project, such as a tourism bureau, that would benefit and support community businesses and principles.

“How can Bainbridge encourage a form of tourism that supports our community values,” Peters said. “In the San Juans they like to feature their shorelines, their stewardship of the land, their preservation of their grape and wine industry. Their goal is to attract people that can appreciate the environmental beauty of the destination and not just to buy a T-shirt or two.”

The lack of a comprehensive tourism strategy has led to the creation of the Bainbridge Tourism Alliance, a loose organization comprised of the Bainbridge Downtown Association, Chamber of Commerce, Lodging Association and the Arts and Humanities Council.

“We decided to form a group because all of us represent different businesses and interests that benefit from tourism,” said Zon Eastes, executive director of the Bainbridge Arts and Humanities Council. “There are many different kinds of tourism and we are interested in tourism we can use as an economic driver to stimulate our community.”

This year, LTAC and the city approved $35,000 for the Tourism Alliance to develop a Tourism Market Action Plan. The Alliance hired consultants Marion McClain and Fred Eurrow to conduct surveys and research successful tourism activities and efforts in the region. The goal would be an eventual five-year plan that would shape island tourism and lead to the creation of tourism-related capital projects. The results of the survey should be completed by year-end.

When asked what a tourism-related capital project might look like, Peters said it depended on what the LTAC would allocated to a project.

“People ask what kind of capital facility can you afford with $50,000 (roughly half the annual lodging-tax fund) a year,” Peters said. (LTAC has traditionally supported spending $50,000 a year on brochures, websites and marketing). “Off the top of my head I would say a water taxi that would enable people to step aboard on Waterfront Park and ride across the harbor to Pritchard Park, which will soon have exhibits regarding the Japanese internment. It would be a lovely feature and it wouldn’t congest our roads.”

A new seven-member LTAC committee, which has a one-year rotating membership, will go before the council for approval on Aug. 27. The first order of business will be to advertise for applications to be reviewed this fall for projects, programs and perhaps a capital facility project for 2009.

Eastes is one of the six non-council members whose name will appear for approval.

“I understand on Bainbridge there has been a lot of concern and focus that tourism is a bad thing,” Eastes said. “People are afraid of something that doesn’t smack of Bainbridge (like) tour buses full of people here to just look at things. That’s not what we will be talking about here.”

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