Several weeks ago, Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills got a call on a Sunday night from an irate citizen complaining about a homeless man sleeping beneath the "Welcome to Eureka" sign. He drove to wake the man up, telling him "I don't think that's a good spot, let's find a different spot."
This story, told by Mills at a recent city council meeting, may illustrate most succinctly the dilemma heightened by the city's recent financial woes. Contracts for the Eureka Chamber of Commerce and the Humboldt County Convention and Visitor's Bureau were renewed on August 1 of this year with cuts of 20 percent to each entity. Originally the city had planned to cut 10 percent, but dug deeper in order to preserve some administrative positions within the police department. Now it appears 2016 will see even greater slashes in city funding to these organizations, putting the future of several key tourism efforts in question.
"We're here to make money for the city, not take it," said Tony Smithers, executive director of the Humboldt County Convention and Visitor's Bureau. Smithers points to the county's bed tax collections, on a steady rise since 2011, as a possible performance metric.
"We deal with complete destination marketing. A lot of it is longer term. For example, advertising. When we get someone to write or do a story on Humboldt County, its value far exceeds the amount of money spent," said Smithers. He used a 2014 full-page ad in Sunset magazine, which cost $10,500, as an example. The Bureau split the cost of the ad with the Humboldt Lodging Alliance, an organization that uses assessment fees from hotels to sponsor tourism efforts. Smithers is also the administrator of the HLA.
Smithers added that he's "not really concerned that the contract will not be renewed," although his organization's board is anxious about its fiscal future and feels pressured to be "prudent." The HCCVB had its funding from the city cut by $58,000 this year.
One source of concern is the Bureau's commitment to the Fly Humboldt campaign. The organization had allocated $250,000 to the public-private partnership over the next two fiscal years, an amount matched by various businesses, volunteers and government entities. Its goal is to attract airlines to the long-benighted California Redwood Coast – Humboldt County Airport. Without the city's support, Smithers said they may not be able to honor their contract to the campaign, and that other backers may get cold feet.
Despite the uncertainty, Smithers expressed optimism about the renegotiation process that should begin soon.
"It looks like there is some flexibility," he said. "We should be able to make it work."
Less assured is Don Smullen, executive director of the Eureka Chamber of Commerce. On June 17 the chamber received a notice that as of June 30, 2016 "the City will be under no obligation ... to allocate funds to the Chamber." The city funds the chamber's Visitor's Center on Broadway to the tune of $97,200 annually. (The chamber reports that funding to the center has decreased steadily over the last three years, dropping from $144,244 in 2003.) Smullen said the Visitor's Center sees around 10,000 visitors a year who drop by to pick up brochures and pick the brains of one of the three full-time employees.
"What they want to do really is talk," said Smullen. "They have smart phones but they want to know what we think."
In a phone call, City Manager Greg Sparks said the decision to cut funding for the Visitor's Center was not based on any dissatisfaction with chamber services.
City funding for the chamber has been a source of contention for many years, with councilmember Linda Atkins speaking out against funding for the organization, saying in 2011 that she "did not think city money should go to an organization that actively lobbies." (Atkins did not return our calls for this article.)
The chamber currently has a long-term lease on the land where the Visitor's Center sits. As part of its agreement with the city, the organization built the building, paved the parking lot, brought it up to ADA compliance and continues to maintain it. After 18 years the building will revert back to the city. Smullen explained that the chamber has been dipping into its savings to continue running the Visitor's Center, an unsustainable solution. In a letter to its members, the chamber cites a cost of $125,000 a year to continue running the center and asks members to prioritize the activities it would like to see the chamber continue. Smullen said most members want the chamber to lobby for economic development such as infrastructure improvement, rail, cold storage and attracting cruise ships.
"Jobs. We need jobs," said Smullen. "To have jobs we need businesses that will hire you. I have five kids and I would love for them to come back after college."
Should the Visitor's Center close, the chamber will continue its tenancy until the lease expires, using the space for mixers and meetings. Who will greet visitors once they reach our county's capital remains in question.