CANNON BEACH — A city committee has distributed more than $650,000 in grants over the past three years, just to lure people to stay overnight in Cannon Beach.
Is it working?
Yes, say members of the tourism and arts commission, who decide which nonprofit organizations have projects that will benefit from funding. The process is improving every year, they add, but the projects being funded need much more scrutiny.
Yes, say some of the organizations receiving the money, but more tweaking needs to be done.
But it is not as well as it could, says Mayor Mike Morgan. More money should be spent on the fine arts and less money paid to promote Cannon Beach, he adds.
“Cannon Beach is a brand anyway,” Morgan said. “It has already established its brand as an arts center. I think that more than 50 percent should go directly to art activities.”
In the past three funding cycles (for years 2011 to 2013), a total of $650,359 has been allocated for an array of events, advertising and promotional websites, all designed to bring visitors to Cannon Beach.
Eight nonprofit organizations have benefited from the funds. The Coaster Theatre has received the most money – $146,901 for promotions and special events – with the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce, at $141,400 for marketing and website development, following close behind.
Other allocations range from $25,600 for the Cannon Beach History Center & Museum’s cottage tours, to $64,777 for the Tolovana Arts Colony’s events including a yoga festival, chamber music concert and a weekend literary event.
The tourism and arts commission funding is in addition to the grants handed out to some local organizations by the city’s parks and community services committee.
The concept seems simple: Increase the lodging tax by 1 percent and distribute the money to nonprofit organizations that have projects interesting enough to attract visitors to Cannon Beach.
But add a layer: Those projects must involve the arts.
Then, add a state law: At least 70 percent of any increase in lodging taxes imposed after 2003 must be devoted to projects that encourage people to stay overnight or to travel more than 50 miles from home.
Although the law requires overnight stays, or, as the lodging industry says, “heads in beds,” several of the eight organizations receiving the tourism grants have been unable to say specifically how many “heads” are being put in those beds solely because of their projects.
As a result, it’s difficult to pin down exactly how much money has been spent per person since the tourism and arts commission began disbursing funds in November 2010.
The Gallery Group, for instance, which has received $111,840 over the past three funding cycles to sponsor Plein Air & More and Spring Unveiling, found it difficult to get an exact count because the artists are spread throughout town during both events, and observers don’t congregate in one location.
“But it is our opinion, upon polling the galleries and local businesses, that hundreds of patrons attended the event,” the Gallery Group said in its evaluation of Spring Unveiling submitted to the commission.
“On average, sales were up for a majority of the galleries, and some reported a cheerful crowd of buyers,” the evaluation said. “But we feel attendance was not as good as we had hoped.”
How it started
The idea to have the city sponsor art-related activities began in late 2009 when Morgan and Valerie Ryan, owner of the Cannon Beach Book Co., asked the City Council to find a way to bring the art – and artists – back to the town that calls itself an arts colony.
City Manager Rich Mays suggested increasing the city’s 6 percent lodging tax, which was low compared to most Oregon towns, by 1 percent. That would raise about $300,000, which could be given out to nonprofit organizations without restrictions.
The remaining 6 percent goes to the city’s general fund, which offsets property taxes by more than 60 percent.
At the time, Mays recalled, he was unaware of an Oregon Attorney General’s opinion on a state law, adopted in 2003, which required that 70 percent of the proceeds from the increase had to be spent on tourism-related events and attractions.
A “tourist” was defined as someone who travels from his residence to another community more than 50 miles away or who stays overnight in the community he visits.
The lodging taxes could also be used to promote tourism through advertising and marketing special events.
“Another significant thing that happened was that people who worked in the lodging industry helped to work out the guidelines” about how the money should be spent, Mays said.
Wrestling with requests
Since the first year, the tourism commission has wrestled with requests that would fund established events such as the history center’s cottage tours and the Gallery Group’s Spring Unveiling, as well as new activities, including a yoga festival, a civil rights symposium and a photo review.
The new events have had mixed success. People from across the country have attended the yoga festival; of the 105 participants at the festival last March, at least 74 lived more than 50 miles away and required lodging for one to four nights, according to records kept by the festival’s manager, Christen Allsop.
A yoga teacher herself, Allsop partnered first with the Tolovana Arts Colony and then with the Friends of Haystack Rock to sponsor the yoga festival. This year, she received a commission grant of $29,001 to put on the event, but she estimates she spent $35,000 for materials and services in the community.
“I think she (Allsop) is a glowing example of what has been innovative,” said Robin Risley, a commission member. “It has brought a caliber of visitors we haven’t had before. She’s really hearing what’s being asked of her and doing it.”
While the civil rights symposium offered presentations by well-known author Taylor Branch as well as some local residents who participated in the civil rights movement, the organizers had only a few weeks after they learned in November 2010 they would receive a grant for the January 2011 event. Because there was little time to promote it to a larger market, the audience was composed mostly of local residents, with a sprinkling of people from the Portland area. The symposium’s sponsor, the Cannon Beach Arts Association, barely broke even on the event.
The CBAA-sponsored photo review this year also disappointed the commissioners. Designed to bring photographers and publications editors together to analyze the photographs and discuss possible improvements and marketing ideas, the review fell short of the anticipated 16 reviewers and 48 photographers expected.
Commission member Linda Beck-Sweeney said the commission decided not to recommend funding for the photo review next year because it brought in too few people staying overnight.
“Last year, they received $21,000 for 11 people. That seems a little out of kilter for us,” she told the City Council earlier this month.
The commission recommended that the photo review be combined with another, more successful arts event in town.
But Don Frank, president of the Cannon Beach Arts Association and the photo review’s organizer, noted that the review did bring in gallery owners, magazine editors and photographers from throughout the United States, in addition to people from the North Coast.
Commission members have debated whether the money can be used to pay event managers or marketing directors. In the end, they decided that, since someone had to run the event, they should be paid for it.
They have gone back and forth about financing websites: Although they were reticent in past years about paying for organizations’ websites, they gave the chamber of commerce $26,000 to develop its website in 2011. But, this year, the commission decided that the chamber’s website was so bad that it was losing at least $1 million from potential visitors who get frustrated trying to navigate the site and are discouraged from coming to town. Instead of giving the chamber the $9,000 it requested to maintain its website in 2013, the commission gave the organization $30,000 to rebuild it.
The increased amount for the website is needed to bring it up to date, said Tom Drumheller, the commission’s vice chairman.
“Out of all the things we’re spending money on, this is among the most important. The chamber needs to have an A-plus website,” he said.
So what is art?
Members have even debated the definition of “art,” since the projects are required to have a connection to the arts. Morgan, who, along with the City Council, has the final say on the commission’s recommendations, is frustrated with some of the commission’s choices.
“Food and yoga are considered art forms,” he said. “I would like to see more emphasis on the fine arts.”
Commission members have enthusiastically contributed to activities one year only to see those programs fail to bring in as many out-of-town guests as expected.
“When it comes to heads in beds, I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think we’re on our way,” said Drumheller, who is the chief executive officer of Escape Lodging in Cannon Beach.
On the other hand, said commission member Linda Beck-Sweeney, who owns Cannon Beach Vacation Rentals, the shoulder season events have sparked new business for her.
“My business has increased substantially,” she said, “and I think the same is true for the hotels. If I had to point to one thing, I think I would have to factor (the events) in.”
Although she plans to promote the events on her website, she doesn’t depend on the events alone to initially tempt people to rent her vacation houses. But those who stop in while they’re attending an event tend to come back.
“They may come down to Cannon Beach for an event and stay for the summer,” Beck-Sweeney said.
Although the application they must complete is long, and they are required to submit an evaluation after the event, the grant recipients say they have few complaints about the process. However, several have expressed concern that the grant comes in quarterly allotments because the city receives its lodging taxes in quarterly payments. This makes it difficult to pay bills, especially when an event is held several months before they receive their final allocation.
In addition, even though they are told in November the amount of the grant they will receive, it’s really only a guess.
How it is estimated
City Manager Mays bases his estimates for the following year’s lodging taxes on the current year’s receipts. But his crystal ball doesn’t predict a downturn in the economy or the weather for the next 12 months.
“We may not get the whole grant, but we’re expected to spend it,” because the organization draws up a budget anticipating that amount, said Valerie Vines Magee, director of the Tolovana Arts Colony.
“We just juggle and work it out,” she added. “The only problem is you’re not guaranteed what was approved.”
The total amount available changes annually: In 2010, Mays estimated the commission would have $210,000 (70 percent of $300,000; the remainder is put into the city’s general fund) to spend. In 2011, the estimate was $203,000. For 2013, based on greater lodging tax receipts this year, the commission doled out $235,000 and may have $10,000 more to save for an unexpected activity or for use in 2014. However, the final amount won’t be known until the fourth quarter, which ends June 30.
Allsop wishes that the organizations could be told sooner whether they will receive grants and how much they will be. Because they are required to conduct their events in the off-season, Allsop plans her yoga festival in March. But she doesn’t know how much she has to spend until early November. That gives her about 16 weeks – some weeks stretch over the holidays – to promote the festival.
“There’s not enough time to do a really good job,” Allsop said. By the time she is told she will receive a grant, deadlines to advertise in popular national yoga magazines have passed. Or, if she can place an ad in a publication, it often is there for several months after the festival is over, at a cost that could reach $1,000.
“It doesn’t maximize the investment,” Allsop said.
“It’s really a great activity, but there’s a lot of risk involved for a nonprofit,” she said. “They may end up opting not to do something that could have been beneficial,” because they don’t know how much they will have to spend in the end.
But, Allsop called the ability to put on an event and receive funding for it an “amazing opportunity.”
“I’m still flabbergasted that we’re able to do this grassroots work in Cannon Beach,” she said. “I’m really grateful that these funds are set aside. It could take years and years for these things to build up with no funding and working only with volunteers.”
In the end, however, the question remains whether all the money spent is meeting the goal of putting “heads in beds.”
“Some of these events are heavily subsidized,” Mayor Morgan said. “It can be as much as $500 per participant. I think if you took an ad out in The Oregonian and told people that if you come to Cannon Beach we would hand you five $100 bills, it might have the same effect.
“But we’re stuck with the process and stuck with the law.”
What it will require is a better method of evaluating each organization and its results, said commission member Valerie Ryan.
“Evaluation has to be the lynchpin,” Ryan said. If organizations can’t document the number of people attending their events from 50 miles away or staying overnight, “then we might as well take the money and light a cigar with it,” she said.
“We need to insist on a more concise evaluation and an evaluation that is documentable. We really have to hold their feet to the fire. We are not being fiscally responsible if we don’t do that.”
If the events aren’t working or the numbers can’t be verified, “then dump them,” Ryan said. Organizations should also be working to find other revenue sources, she added.
“We should be making more room for new events,” Ryan said.
Looking back on the vision that she and Morgan shared with the City Council and watching the process unfold, Ryan said it hasn’t been quite what she had imagined.
“I thought it would be a lot tidier, a lot easier to name something a success or a failure. It isn’t as black and white as I thought it would be.”
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.