‘For marketing purposes only’: Placer shifts focus of resort association | SierraSun.com

‘For marketing purposes only’: Placer shifts focus of resort association

Placer County staff announced last week that they are seeking changes to their contract with the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association that would save $300,000 by refocusing the association's efforts exclusively on marketing.

The association currently markets the North Lake Tahoe region as a visitor destination, but it also reviews project proposals for how the area's Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT), a tax on all overnight guest lodging, is spent.

"What we've found over time is having a single organization between us and the community at-large is not the best way to have a conversation with the community," said Placer County Deputy CEO for Lake Tahoe Jennifer Merchant, who also sits on the resort association board.

Under the proposed change, which requires the approval of the board of supervisors, the resort association would continue to manage the region's marketing effort but would no longer be involved in the decision making process when it comes to how TOT money is spent on transportation and infrastructure projects.

A new committee would then be formed to provide recommendations on which project proposals should be considered for TOT funding.

"Our current relationship wasn't making space for a diverse voice, either geographically or issue-based," Merchant said.

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Currently, the resort association's Capital Infrastructure and Transportation Committee reviews transit and infrastructure proposals before making a recommendation to the county board of supervisors.

However, Merchant said conflicts of interest in the committee have been an on-going problem.

"This year there were 16 projects and throughout that process several people had to recuse themselves for a conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest," she said. "The result was we didn't always have a set group of people reviewing projects."

While the new committee does not yet have a name and is still being developed as more community suggestions come in, Merchant said that it would have about 15 members including representatives from all of the business associations in the region, as well as two seats for the resort association and two at-large seats.

Members would be appointed by local organizations, Merchant said. They would serve terms of two to three years, and would include experts in areas that are high priority in the Tourism Master Plan.

"For example, trails are a big priority in our Tourism Master Plan and it comes up again and again in community meetings, so we want to make sure that the committee has a representative that's familiar with trails," she said.

Another problem that county staff is hoping to fix are some of the redundancies in the project review process.

Placer County Senior Management Analyst Erin Casey said the county began working with resort association in the mid-90s on tourism marketing, transportation and infrastructure projects because at the time, the county didn't have a strong presence in the Lake Tahoe region.

"The county executive office wasn't here at that time, our presence wasn't at all then what it is today," Casey said. "The organizations in our community weren't actively engaged in transportation as they are today."

She said the Truckee North Tahoe Transportation Management Association is an example of one organization that has, over time, become more engaged in looking at transportation, but some of its board members are also on the infrastructure and transportation committee, which creates some overlap.

Dan Wilkins, Ron Treabess, Tony Karwowski, and Will Garner all serve on resort association's Capital Infrastructure and Transportation Committee, as well as the board of the Truckee-North Tahoe Transportation Management Association. The transportation association's executive director, Jaime Wright, is also on the Capital Infrastructure and Transportation Committee.

"Our view is this is a duplicative process that could be streamlined," Casey said.

Each year, county staff determines the budget that the resort association has to operate. According to county documents, a letter from the Placer County CEO's office was sent to the resort association on March 31, notifying them of the budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year and specifying that the figure is for "marketing services only."

Current NLTRA Board Chairman Adam Wilson said when the association was created, it was to provide a local voice. He said he fears the community will lose that under the county's proposal.

"The reason that our board is upset and perplexed is because this goes against everything that we've been working on together," Wilson said.

In his response to the county's letter, on April 21, and at last week's May 3 town hall, Wilson called the timing of the proposal into question, and said the association was given little warning.

Wilson also said the association had been actively engaged over recent months in reevaluating its operations and looking for ways to improve efficiency.

"A number of the points that the county is making are really the by-product of what we've been working on," Wilson said.

Placer County does have seats on the resort association board, which are held by Merchant and Casey. Similarly, the new board also has seats for two resort association members.

"I think the resort association has really built the trust in the community of being a non-biased voice." Wilson said. "We do a lot of outreach, we do a lot of planning, so that we can present the good, the bad, the pros, the cons, just to make sure that they have a chance to weigh in."

The county's proposal would not cut any jobs at the resort association, according to county staff. But Wilson said that it's important for the association to be actively involved in transportation and infrastructure as well as marketing because he believes those things are all connected.

"The fact that we have a view of all three is a competitive advantage for our community because we can make sure that they're all aligned," he said.

Additional public meetings on the proposal are scheduled May 11 from 4-6 p.m. at the Placer County Administrative Center in Tahoe City, and May 12 from 8 a.m. to noon in the Squaw Valley Public Service District conference room in Squaw Valley.

Amanda Rhoades is a news, environment and business reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at arhoades@sierrasun.com or 530-550-2653. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @akrhoades.