Photos courtesy of Pete Alport, Visit Bend
Damon Runberg has heard the complaints about tourists in Bend, especially this summer.
Strain on the city’s parks and roads, longer drive times around time and restaurants and watering holes jammed pack were just a few of the concerns Runberg, a regional economist with the state, listed Thursday during the City Club of Central Oregon’s lunchtime forum on tourism.
“I hear things like,’It takes me twice as long to get to work,’ or ‘We like to grab brunch at The Victorian but it’s packed all summer,” Runberg, one of three speakers at the event, told more than 250 people at the Riverhouse on the Deschutes’ convention center.
So, are all these tourists worth it?
Looking at data provided by Runberg, it’s awfully hard to image Bend without its annual influx of skiers and snowboards in the winter and mountain bikers, trail runners and ale enthusiasts in the summer. Deschutes County is home to approximately 6,700 tourism jobs, or about 9 percent of the overall workforce, according to Runberg. And in the last fiscal year, tourists were responsible for $660 million in direct spending. That’s about a 30 percent or $150 million increase from the area’s last growth period in 2007.
Runberg made it clear that from an economist’s standpoint Bend is much better off and more well-rounded than a classic tourist town.
“‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,’ I hear that a lot,” Runberg said. “I think that’s a common misconception. Thirty years ago we were over-reliant on timber and the wood parts industry. Ten years ago we were over-reliant on the construction industry. Today’s economy (in Central Oregon) has never been more diversified. We’re more like a major-metro area than a tourist town.”
Runberg pointed out that while about 9 percent of Central Oregon’s jobs are tourism related, that’s a far cry from the 40 to 50 percent of tourism-related jobs in ski towns like Vail or Aspen in Colorado.
“For us, tourism really greased the wheels to get us going again during the recession,” he said. “In 2010, the middle of the recession, the tourism sector (in Central Oregon) was adding jobs when the rest of the economy was still losing them.”
Carolyn Eagan, the city of Bend’s economic development director, helped explain where money generated from hotel room taxes – more commonly referred to as transient-room taxes or TRTs – can legally go.
The average cost of a hotel room in Bend is $120.95 a night, Eagan said. Of that, the city gets $12.58 from the TRT. By state law, 70 percent of that tax goes to the city’s general fund and 30 percent must go back to tourism efforts.
Over the past several years, TRTs have been responsible for approximately $5 million of the city’s $140 million in revenue, Eagan said. They’ve also raised nearly $3 million a year the city has to spend on tourism.
“I know there’s a lot of concern, I know there’s a lot of debate on how many dollars are spent on tourism,” Eagan said. “But we are in such a better place. When we talk about economic development and the importance of tourism, the city of Bend is the crown jewel of Oregon.
“We have $10 million forecast to come to the city through TRTs this year,” she continued. “That’s $6.5 million to go to general services and $3.5 million to tourism. ... We have figured out to use tourism to become a real city.”
Kevney Dugan, the president of Visit Bend, addressed growing concerns that his organization was targeting a party-hard crowd.
“There’s the perception that we’re targeting people to do the Bend Ale Trail only,” Dugan joked.
“Eighty percent of our marketing targets one demographic,” he continued. “It’s a married female, whose 35 or older, in a household where the combined income is $75,000 a year or more, with at least one child under 18 living at home. … This is the kind of person I think we’d like to have in our community.”
Dugan also pointed out his organization’s efforts to pump up winter tourism. Despite what feels like a record numbers of tourists in town this summer, Dugan noted that 60 percent of Visit Bend’s marketing efforts are aimed at winter tourism compared to just 10 percent targeted at the summer season.
Dugan summed up the allure of Bend and Central Oregon early on in his presentation.
“Bend is a lifestyle city that’s cultivating tomorrow’s economy,” Dugan said. “Bend is artsy. Bend is techy. Bend is a mountain town that has it all.”