Sturgeon Bay Business Owners Express Frustration With City

The Door County Visitor Bureau (DCVB) finally has a legitimate marketing budget. Over $1.5 million to spend promoting the peninsula, in fact, now that the room tax is in place. It’s good news for most of the county, but many in Sturgeon Bay think it spells trouble for them.

That’s because the city is still not part of the Door County Tourism Zone Commission, made up of 11 municipalities collecting a 5.5 percent room tax and pooling their collections to create a competitive marketing effort. Sturgeon Bay has had its own room tax for a decade, used to fund the Sturgeon Bay Visitor Center (SBVC) and city festivals and promotions. The city tax brought in $223,290 for the SBVC in 2007.

Sturgeon Bay’s absence from the commission means the city cannot be specifically included in DCVB marketing efforts, such as this summer’s advertising insert in Midwest Living Magazine or efforts to bring group tours and motor coaches to the peninsula.

“It’s frustrating, because each morning my staff and I wake up and we’re spending 100 percent of our energy to represent 80 percent of this county,” said DCVB Executive Director Jack Moneypenny in a question and answer session Mar. 13 at Third Avenue Playhouse.

At that session, Brian Kelsey of the Door County Maritime Museum (and a member or the DCVB Board of Directors) lamented that many people have worked hard for a decade to make Sturgeon Bay a destination and because of the city’s refusal to join the Tourism Zone Commission, that effort is being subverted.

“I see there are ways Sturgeon Bay is already falling off the map,” he said, mentioning the Midwest Living insert. “We fought to establish Sturgeon Bay as a place to stop, not just a pass-through on the way to Door County, but now you’ll have a whole new generation doing just that.”

Though it appears the city is being stubborn on first look, there are several reasons for the reluctance to join the larger tax zone. Christie Weber, for one, took issue with the implication that Sturgeon Bay has to catch up with Northern Door.

“Remember, Sturgeon Bay passed a room tax ten years ago when the rest of the county wouldn’t,” she said. “Now [the Tourism Zone Commission] happened because Sturgeon Bay was taking a bite out of the market. There’s ten years of infrastructure in place here.”

Sturgeon Bay’s two visitor centers and festivals are funded in large part by the city room tax. Joining the zone would send those dollars to the DCVB. Then there’s the matter of city government having become accustomed to their 30 percent cut of the room tax collections.

“Those dollars have become ingrained in city government,” Moneypenny said.

Kelsey said whether to join the Tourism Zone Commission should no longer be considered just a lodging issue.

Kelsey asked for a show of hands from anybody in city government in the audience of about 40, most of them business owners. No hands were raised.

“It’s very sad that not a single person whose decision this is to make is here,” he said, then urged audience members to contact their alderman to push for a resolution.

Dennis Statz, owner of Sturgeon Bay’s White Lace Inn, recommended the city join the zone, but with an important demand – that the city council give the vast majority of their 30 percent take from the room tax to the visitor center.

“That still wouldn’t be enough to fund it, but it would make it possible,” he said. “I think we have an opportunity now. The city has been getting $125,000 a year from the room tax. That amounts to $1.25 million over ten years. I think that’s enough, and the city needs to give it up.”

Moneypenny touts “new organization”

Earlier in the Mar. 13 meeting, Moneypenny presented a laundry list of changes and progress the DCVB has made in the last four months before accepting questions from the audience.

“I think we’re a new organization,” said the director, who took over the job in October.

“What has happened in 18 months is nothing short of miraculous. This year we’ll have $1.56 million for marketing. Consider that a year ago we had about $200,000. It’s a pretty amazing feet. In my 20 years in Milwaukee, you couldn’t get 11 people, let alone 11 communities to meet and come together.”

The bureau reported 2.2 million Web site hits in 2007, just 100,000 less than Milwaukee’s travel site recorded. Moneypenny credited the leadership of Karen Raymore for those accomplishments, saying the former DCVB director “did a lot of great things for this organization.”

Moneypenny attempted to assuage concerns about the DCVB’s old ways by touting new accounting systems, restructuring of the staff, specialized personnel for accounting and Web site management.

“The Board of Directors felt it was important to create a more professional organization,” he said. “After all, it’s your lives and livelihoods we’re talking about here.”

He urged members to be patient in evaluating the marketing efforts and said the peninsula shouldn’t expect major results until the winter and summer of 2009. But Moneypenny acknowledged that significant efforts need to be made to help drive business immediately.

“We have a combination of short and long-term marketing we’re working on to help businesses after this dismal winter we’ve all been through,” he said.

Moneypenny continued to tout his goal of bringing more group travel and motor coach excursions to the county, recognizing that Door County is an unlikely destination for groups measured by the thousands, but could be ideal for board meetings and executive retreats, describing the peninsula as “primed for that business.”

“I think this is one of those things that can produce the incremental room nights I hope will make a difference,” he said.

Moneypenny said the bureau is limited in how much they can direct those groups to communities not contributing to the Tourism Zone Commission, particularly Sturgeon Bay.