Communication Gap: City, SBVC, Visitor Bureau, and tourism commission still on separate pages

More than three years have passed since Door County municipalities began discussing the creation of a county-wide room tax. From the start, it was evident that finding a way to include the City of Sturgeon Bay in the project was going to present problems, but few thought it would stand unresolved three years later.

Today the principals still aren’t communicating with each other, and have yet to meet to hash out a solution.

Door County Tourism Zone (TZC) Chairman Bob Kufrin said the closest they have come to a meeting with all the principles involved was a TZC meeting with Sturgeon Bay Visitor Bureau Director Todd Trimberger, a city alderman, and Jack Moneypenny, President and CEO of the Door County Visitor Bureau, in attendance.

“As I recall the biggest discussion then was getting a handle on what the financial situation was for the SBVC,” Kufrin said. “After about a half hour I don’t think anyone had a handle on what their budget was and where the money was being spent.”

There has not been a meeting between the leaders of the DCVB, the city, the TZC, and the SBVC specifically to address how Sturgeon Bay could be woven into the zone and keep Sturgeon Bay’s Visitor Center intact. Sturgeon Bay Mayor Tom Voegele said such a gathering might help.

“I’m willing to sit down and talk about all that,” Voegele said. “If we can get the leaders together, maybe that’s what needs to happen.”

But Trimberger questioned the usefulness of such a meeting.

“Having us all in a room, I’m not sure what that would do,” Trimberger said. “We’re the only ones willing to be flexible. There has not been any give from the DCVB or the tourism zone.”

Kufrin said the TZC’s options are limited by state statute and the bylaws adopted by its twelve member communities earlier this year. The statute says the commission can contract with only one marketing entity located within the zone, and the bylaws have established that all members must enter under the same membership terms. Trimberger has said the TZC is acting in a heavy-handed manner and is unwilling to compromise, but Kufrin said he’s not sure what the commission can offer.

“The only thing we can agree to do is wait longer,” he said. “That’s really the only wiggle room we have.”

Though Kufrin said the commission couldn’t offer the SBVC something different than other communities, he indicated there is room for the Door County Visitor Bureau to work something out with the SBVC.

“If the visitor bureau came to us with some agreement they worked out with SBVC, where they would pay the SBVC for services out of the money we allocated, then we could say yes or no,” Kufrin explained. “And why would we not want to do that if we’re still contracting with our one and only vendor? We don’t want to tell [the DCVB] who they have to do business with. We’re really only concerned with their performance. Are we seeing an increase in overnight stays?”

But no proposal has ever come before the commission, Kufrin said.

“Nobody’s ever come before us and said, ‘Here’s what we need,’” Kufrin said. “It appears to be an issue of finance between the city and the SBVC.”

David Eliot, Treasurer of the Door County Visitor Bureau, said the bureau has also been unable to get a picture of the SBVC’s needs.

“The visitor bureau has met with representatives of the SBVC on at least three occasions this year and has requested detailed explanations of SBVC expenditures in order to determine what items could fall within the DCVB’s budget,” Eliot said. “It is my belief that the city can join the zone and the SBVC can find the funds to cover the estimated operational shortfall.”

Kufrin said he’d be willing to meet with the other groups, and sent out a packet Aug. 29 to all non-zone communities with membership information, by-laws, and an invitation to join, as well as an offer to come to the community and answer questions.

Trimberger said if the city were to join the zone the SBVC would have to come up with $150-175,000 to survive in addition to what they bring in from membership dues and revenue, meaning the organization would cut approximately $50-75,000 from their current budget. By raising its room tax to 5.5 percent and capping its take at $100,000, the city has effectively provided $40,000 of the needed funds already.

Voegele said he has not seen a proposal from the SBVC detailing what they would need to survive if the city became a full member of the zone.

“I want to see what’s bare bones, where the SBVC can survive and provide what’s important for the city,” the Mayor said. “Then we can see how the tourism zone and DCVB is willing to help out, how the city can help out, and maybe we can get somewhere. I think we can come up with something. But the first thing is we’ve got to see how lean the SBVC can get.”

Voegele said he is trying to arrange a special Committee of the Whole meeting for next Tuesday or Wednesday to discuss the issue with the common council.

One possibility for bridging the remaining financial gap would be for the SBVC to sell its welcome center located next to the DCVB offices and visitor center on Hwy 42 in Sturgeon Bay. Trimberger said his membership has mixed opinions about that idea.

“Our membership has said they feel very strongly that they want that open,” he said. “Another side says it could be sold and used as seed money for the future of the organization.”

Trimberger said it costs about $10,000 to operate the highway center annually. Moneypenny said the DCVB should be able to provide a service comparable to the SBVC center.

“If they were in the zone, we would promote them and do all those things like we do for the other communities,” Moneypenny said. “So would there be a true need for a separate center? I don’t know. I would think we would be able to adequately represent them.”

It appears the first step toward making that happen is open and honest communication between the leaders of the organizations involved.