By Marcy Stamper
The Okanogan County commissioners have awarded $93,000 to the county fairgrounds for a new bathroom facility. The money comes from the 2-percent tax the state collects on lodging, which is returned to counties to promote overnight tourism.
The commissioners took extra time to weigh the application from the fair and the recommendation of the county’s Lodging Tax Advisory Committee (LTAC), which evaluates all applications and had raised questions about the potential for the fair to reap a significant return on the investment. The other 35 applicants for the so-called 2-percent money shared a total of $95,000, which was distributed in April. The groups requested a total of $160,000.
After further review, the commissioners decided on May 5 to provide the money to the fairgrounds, noting that state law permits the tax revenue to be used for county-owned tourist-related facilities. The new bathrooms will include showers and laundry facilities.
All 35 applicants received extra scrutiny this year because of a new requirement in state law that the nonprofits estimate how many people are likely to spend the night to attend their events. Grant recipients will also have to provide an actual count of overnight stays before they collect the grant at the end of this year, according to Laleña Johns, clerk of the board of county commissioners, who administers the 2-percent program. All applicants must match the grants with their own expenditures on advertising.
Many of the groups, particularly small nonprofits with no staff and no obvious way to count the number of tourists who spend the night to attend their events, had trouble providing the required information, but the documentation provided by the fair was particularly scant, according to a letter sent to the commissioners by LTAC in March.
“The entire lodging committee was concerned—we couldn’t even judge, when the fair made their presentation. They basically only showed maps,” said Patrick Plumb, the chair of LTAC and mayor of Tonasket.
The Methow groups were the best prepared and the advertising they do to attract tourists sets an example for the rest of the county, said Plumb. “We would hope that all the applicants would be that prepared, to raise all the boats in the harbor,” he said.
Applicants such as the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association (MVSTA) are larger and have a paid staff and the resources to present better documentation. Moreover, MVSTA tracks sales of multi-day ski passes and zip codes, said Kristen Smith, marketing director for MVSTA.
While Plumb acknowledged that the fair is entitled to the funding, he said the committee wants to be sure that money collected by hotels, motels and RV parks accomplishes the goal of attracting overnight tourists. “The Legislature wants to see a return on their investment,” said Plumb.
The county is soliciting bids for the construction of the bathrooms, but has not received any yet. Johns said they are meeting with the architects next week to get additional specifications that have been requested by some contractors.
The fair also received a $50,000 grant from the Washington Department of Agriculture to cover the full cost of the project, said Johns. They hope the work can be completed this summer, before the fair in early September.
The county commissioners are in the process of reorganizing the Parks and Recreation Board, which has operated the fair for years, so that the group will focus instead on county-wide recreational activities. They are creating a separate committee to run the fair.
The county has been receiving letters from people interested in serving on the seven-member Parks and Recreation Board and 11-member fair committee. Thus far they have half a dozen applicants for each.
The commissioners recently dismissed the two year-round employees at the fairgrounds, and have postponed hiring a new facilities manager while the two boards are reorganized, according to Johns.
Because so many things are in transition, LTAC had additional concerns about providing so much money to the fairgrounds, said Plumb.
The commissioners are meeting on Tuesday (May 27) with LTAC and the county’s marketing board, which distributes what is called the “second 2 percent” (lodging taxes collected by the county) to MVSTA and the Okanogan County Tourism Council. They want to explore the best way to oversee the distribution of both 2 percent funds, including the possibility of combining the two boards into one, said Johns.