Reclaiming the image

A cynical person might ask, what can you accomplish with $150,000, against the millions of dollars the Methow Valley tourism industry has lost to the vagaries of wildfire this summer?

But just as there are, according to the adage, no atheists on a sinking ship, there likely are few cynics questioning the value of a state grant intended to help drum up tourism in the valley and Okanogan County, while there is still something left to the season. (See the story on page A1 for details.)

The state money comes at a critical time. The frustrating paradox is that we need the help, while by any rational assessment we shouldn’t. As the valley’s various civic and organizational leaders keep pointing out, we are open for business, we’re accessible, and most of the attractions that typically bring visitors flocking are ready to absorb, entertain and awe the usual crowds.

However, perception is a stubborn thing and especially difficult to reverse. The words and images generated by media coverage of the fires have left an impression in many minds that the valley is, if not possibly dangerous, at least a problematic place to visit.

It’s pointless and unfair to blame “the media.” The intense media attention to the summer’s succession of events has been, for the most part, accurate and not hysterical or sensational. Facts is facts, but to paraphrase an old journalism joke, they are getting in the way of a good story.

That’s where proactively and honestly telling our own story comes in. The media might be of some help, because they love a recovery story. However, counting on that to happen is not a strategy. It’s more effective to take charge of the message and start chipping away at perception.

The state funds are all about promotion, which takes money. Well-executed, the effort can be worth it. With advertising and marketing, you control the message because you are paying for its creation and distribution.

The valley’s chambers of commerce and other organizations have already put a fair amount of money and effort into reassuring the “target markets” that we’re ready and eager to welcome them. The state funds will support a broader, more intense campaign. It’s likely that a lot of people are primed to hear good reasons to come back. Well, we’ve got ‘em. Even a cynic can’t deny that.

The other disasters

Meanwhile, on the federal front, the state is trying to figure out why it only got half of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster relief loaf — funds to help repair public infrastructure damaged in the wildfires — but was not approved for individual assistance. (See details in the story on page A1.)

The state will appeal that split decision, and will point to the preponderance of individual “disasters” that are profoundly affecting hundreds if not thousands of Okanogan County residents.

FEMA seems to be widely misunderstood as some kind of broad bailout program for disaster areas. It never has been, and its limits on individual assistance may only cover a small portion of a family’s losses. But from the vantage point of “nothing,” “something” might look pretty good.

It’s probably naïve to include the words “logic” and “federal program” in the same sentence, but it seems logical that an area whose infrastructure needs repair probably has some citizens who need assistance. Whatever help is available must be pursued if the valley and county are to start rebuilding from the ashes of the Carlton Complex Fire.