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Taking Shape 

Bend cultural tourism fund forms

In November, voters approved Ballot Measure 9-94. That measure approved a bump in the fees charged to visitors staying in City of Bend hotels and resorts from 9 to 10.4 percent. It is a modest increase—especially considering that the so-called Transient Room Tax rate hasn't increased in Bend since 2003, while cities like Portland and Boulder have room taxes in the mid-teens.

The approval rate for the measure was solid, and the idea is a good one: Sort of like a dog chasing its tail, the more tourists who are drawn to Bend, the more funds that will be generated. Or, perhaps more specifically explained: A dollar spent on marketing tourism can easily be expected to double or triple itself in tourist revenue here. Ideally, these funds will be a self-feeding investment.

All good, right?

But the ballot measure's approval isn't the same as waving a magic wand, and making the room tax, presto, take form. Instead, the initiative left a number of hazy questions about how the room tax would operate once approved—or, even more specifically, left unanswered how the funds collected from the increased room tax would be fairly and most effectively distributed.

It is estimated that the tax increase will bring in approximately $650,000 annually, one-third earmarked for public safety. The other funds—what will amount to an estimated $450,000—will be given to promote tourism. That amount is split into two: $300,000 for strengthening the marketing of Bend's winter tourism, and a second, smaller pot, roughly $150,000, for promoting "cultural tourism."

At election time in November, the Source endorsed the measure, but with reservations, primarily because there was no specific or set plan about how these funds for promoting tourism would be distributed, and about who would make those decisions. At the time, Visit Bend CEO Doug LaPlaca told the Source editorial team "to take a leap of faith."

The Source did, and endorsed the measure, but with a promise to keep tabs on how the process to distribute those public funds is evolving.

Since the election, a small group of stakeholders has been meeting to form the rules and operating systems for the Bend Cultural Tourism Fund—essentially, constructing a purse to manage the $150,000 earmarked for "cultural tourism" from which local arts organizations may request allowances to market their events and organizations, and deciding who holds onto those purse strings. That group includes some of the very people who may benefit from the additional funds, but LaPlaca asures there are measures and guidelines in place to avoid any conflicts of interest.

If ends justify the means, then certainly these meetings have been successful as the operating protocols and appointment of the decision-makers for the Bend Cultural Tourism Fund are nearly completed. Of the 13 meetings regarding this process, only two have been public, the first of which had a chicken-or-egg feeling in that many of the decisions about the composition and guidelines were already formed, and were more presented for approval than discussion, which certainly is one means to move forward the process.

During the campaign, for example, proponents had explained (at least to the Source during the endorsement interview) that there were three potential plans to manage the Bend Cultural Tourism Fund; one being to form a new, independent and autonomous nonprofit. But by the first open meeting, those alternative concepts had vanished, leaving in place the single idea of a steering committee managed by LaPlaca. Also at the first meeting, the number and nature of the steering committee for the Bend Cultural Tourism Fund essentially had been anointed. Those ideas have changed little since their first public presentation. The evaluation of grants submitted by arts organizations, for example, will be overseen by a 13-member commission, as opposed to the original 11 members first proposed; those members will be appointed by public entities like the mayor while others will be appointed by private entities like the Old Mill District.

Even so, whatever complaints there may be about streamlining the process, the end result is promising.

Adopting ideas that the Oregon Arts Council uses to manage its Cultural Tourism Fund, the Bend Cultural Tourism Fund will be fully transparent, including, said LaPlaca, that the grant application review process by the Bend Tourism Cultural Fund Commission will be open to the public.

Also, recognizing that Bend has a mix of large and small arts organizations, the funds will be available in a variety of sizes to a variety of arts organizations.

"Each granting cycle will include a mix of small and large grants," explained LaPlaca. He went on to explain that larger grants (approximately $25,000) will be committed to "flagship cultural events"—presumably like events at Tower Theatre and annual events like the BendFilm Festival—"smaller grants should be available to encourage new arts and cultural programs to emerge."

The first grants to arts organizations will be distributed in early 2015.

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