The Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council may receive borough funds after all.
An ordinance awarding a $150,000 grant to the tourism marketing council — a nonprofit aimed at promoting the Kenai Peninsula as a “world class visitor destination” — passed at the Tuesday, Nov. 5, assembly meeting 6-3, with assembly members Kenn Carpenter, Norm Blakeley and Jesse Bjorkman opposing.
During Tuesday’s meeting, assembly member Brent Hibbert, the ordinance’s sponsor, said tourism is an important component of the borough’s economy. He said last year tourism raised $7.7 million in sales tax money, going directly to support the school district.
Hibbert’s ordinance appropriates $150,000 from borough general fund balance to the tourism marketing council for the purpose of promoting tourism in areas of the borough outside the cities.
The tourism marketing council submitted a grant application to the borough in February for $100,000. Hibbert’s ordinance allows the council an opportunity to update its grant application to include an outline of proposed projects. The ordinance also requires the council to present program objectives to the assembly for approval, before the grant will be awarded. The council has 45 days to send in an updated application, which will also be presented to borough administration.
In his proposed FY 2020 budget, borough Mayor Charlie Pierce zeroed out the $100,000 tourism marketing council funds provided in years past. The assembly amended the $100,000 back into the budget, before they passed it in May. The mayor vetoed the $100,000 June 18, and the assembly failed to override.
Since the 1990s, the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council has been funded by the borough.
In FY 2019, the borough provided the council with $100,000. In the FY 2018 budget, the borough supported the council with $305,980 in funds, and $340,00 in FY 2017.
Debbie Speakman of Homer spoke on behalf of the tourism marketing council, where she is a contract consultant to help build on the organization’s current programs. She said she came on with the council because she “believes in the borough and what we have to show off.”
“Yes, people do know where Alaska is,” Speakman told the assembly. “They’re excited to come here, but you know where they want to go? They want to go to Denali. They want to go to Anchorage … People come for wildlife, they come for glaciers and they come for mountains. They can find that here, all of them.”
During the ordinance’s public hearing, some residents who testified said the ordinance was not a good use of taxpayer money.
“This has absolutely nothing to do with the essential services the borough is supposed to be providing to the people that live here,” Chris Hayes from Kenai told the assembly.
The mayor and some assembly members also called into question the effectiveness of the organization. Pierce said the group doesn’t have metrics to prove their effectiveness.
“It’s about focusing on the deliverance of services that you’re paying for,” Pierce said. “If you want to spend some money, give it to someone who’s given you some metrics. I don’t think this group has proven that. I’d ask you to consider if this is effective money you’re spending.”
Speakman said tourism is one of the most difficult industries to get numbers on, saying it’s difficult to plot how visitors come to learn about the Kenai Peninsula.
During final comments, Pierce said he does support marketing the borough.
“I’m hopeful that we can reach some discussion and get some metrics that we can demonstrate and feel better about supporting the dollars that we do utilize there,” Pierce said.
Shanon Davis, who served as the tourism marketing council executive director for about 12 years, told the assembly that tourism marketing benefits every resident in the borough. She said the tourism council has a small reserve in the bank, but without the partnership with the borough, the organization will eventually decrease activity.
“We’ve continued to spend the money and market, but that money is going to dry up,” Davis told the assembly. “I remember when I was the director and people would ask me what would happen if the borough stops its side of the investment, and I said, ‘well, that will start the spiraling decline of the organization.’ A private-public partnership only works if there are two parts.”
Carroll Knutson, a docent at Soldotna’s Homestead Museum, said $150,00 to market the borough is money well spent. Knutson said the borough was “hardly encouraging people to visit” the peninsula in light of the Swan Lake Fire and highway construction.
“The people who came here this summer went through hell and high water, quite literally, to get here,” Knutson said.
She says people who do visit to the Kenai Peninsula come back.
“I’ve talked to people who have gone to Barrow before they’ve considered coming here,” Knutson said. “But once they get here, they come back. They come back over and over again.”