Last month, the Oregon Court of Appeals sided with local hoteliers and the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, who argued that the City of Bend violated state law when it tried to get creative with the way it spends room tax dollars. Under a state law established in 2003, the City of Bend is obligated to allocate no less than 35.4% of the money it collects from hotels and other short-term rentals on tourism promotion or tourism-related facilities. In 2018, the City tried to reduce that amount to 30%. Back in 2018, keeping up with road maintenance was a big source of concern for local people (my, how our priorities have changed since then), so the City, to sum it up, aimed to interpret "tourism-related facilities" as "fixing roads for tourists (and others)." That didn't fly with the local judge tasked with ruling on the lawsuit, and it didn't fly with the Court of Appeals this year, either. Now, the City must return the money to its rightful place.
As time goes on and Bend grows, local people appear to be far less interested in the notion of any "tourism promotion" for Bend—which routinely makes it onto top-10 lists for the fastest growing city or the top sporting town in the nation, among other accolades. But the inclusion of the term "tourism-related facilities" in the mix means there are still opportunities to go beyond the traditional advertising or marketing campaigns. Our editorial board has long advocated for a more creative interpretation of what we should be able to do with "tourism promotion" dollars, and we hope the City's loss in court will not make its leaders shy away from other attempts. Bend Mayor Sally Russell told another media outlet that she and the rest of the Bend City Council are looking at other ways to use the money on tourism-related facilities, such as improving parts of downtown or adding public restrooms. As we have advocated for in the past, we believe another interpretation may lie in tourism-related housing.
Right now, many local employers are hoping the recent expiration of the $300 federal unemployment insurance bonus will mean that workers who have been receiving the bonus will once again go back to work. Economists caution employers not to get too excited, and to expect the return of workers to happen slowly as those past UI recipients spend down savings. But there's another factor at play here in Bend that's adding to the worker shortage: The fact that some workers can no longer afford to live here, with rising rents and a skyrocketing median home price. Jobs in the hospitality industry often pay lower wages than other fields—and when worker shortages translate into a diminished experience for tourists, you can bet it will have an effect on the local economy.
With that in mind, the interpretation of "tourism-related facilities" in Bend should go further than bathrooms (though those are also welcome). Building a hospitality-worker dormitory or apartment complex could very well fall under the banner of "tourism-related facility," for example. The City already owns land in and around Bend that it's eyeing for a houseless village or two. It could also eye some of that land for more permanent housing for some of Bend's lowest-paid workers, if leaders had the gumption and foresight.
While the City of Bend has gotten an expensive slap on the wrist for its attempt at using its room tax dollars for something other than tourism promotion, we're encouraged to see that its leaders are not shying away from trying another interpretation. The housing crisis—already massive before the pandemic, and now only that much worse—is affecting the health, safety and overall prosperity of Bend, and it requires bold and creative leadership, not afraid to try and try again, to help fix it.