Ferry Stofflet

On Flag Day in June 2015, Stan Stofflet of Rio, on behalf of the Columbia County Visitors' Bureau, offers an out-of-state visitor a packet of information about tourist attractions in Columbia County at the Colsac III Ferry landing near Lodi.

Daily Register file photo

RIO — Promoters were told to forge ahead with all their efforts to boost Columbia County’s already-robust tourism industry next year, despite the uncertain future of the Columbia County Economic Development Corp.

The group is the parent organization for the Columbia County Visitors Bureau, whose board met Tuesday in Rio.

The session included a lengthy discussion not only of the economic group’s jeopardy, but also of what statistics county officials could cite to quantify the success of any entity whose purpose is to promote economic development.

Columbia County’s proposed 2018 budget, presented Oct. 18 to the County Board, includes full funding ($121,070) for Columbia County Economic Development Corp. However, the County Board’s Finance Committee decided to put a little more than half that amount, or $60,540, into reserves, with the option to release it during 2018’s second half with Finance Committee recommendation and County Board approval.

Columbia County Supervisor Andy Ross of Poynette, who also is chairman of the economic development group’s executive committee, said he is confident the full allocation will be available in 2018, with either the full release of the money during the year or a budget amendment next month to guarantee release of the full $121,070.

For that reason, Ross said, the Visitors Bureau should go ahead with plans such as creating and distributing the 2018 tourism guidebook and launching an improved website.

Visitors Bureau activities constitute only a small portion of the group’s budget. About 80 percent is for wages and benefits for an executive director and administrative assistant.

Both of them will be retired by the end of this year. Executive Director Nancy Elsing announced this month her plans to retire Dec. 31, and Administrative Assistant Roxann Brue plans to retire at the end of November.

Brue raised a question officials at the corporation have raised previously: How can the organization attract a successor for Elsing if its funding isn’t guaranteed past June 2018?

Columbia County Supervisor Nancy Long of Lodi said many county agencies face budgetary uncertainty.

“We’re losing people,” she said, “and we’re going to have to lose some functions.”

Ross said the concerns of the Finance Committee, as he understands them, include the extent to which the county oversees Columbia County Economic Development Corp., and documentation of its economic development activities.

“If there’s one thing that’s important,” he said, “it’s accountability for how tax dollars are spent.”

Some of the ideas to show how the Visitors Bureau spends county tax dollars include:

  • Monitoring the county’s revenue from its 0.5 percent sales tax.
  • Tracking receipts from hotel-motel taxes from municipalities that have them, including the times of the year when those receipts tend to spike. For example, Hanson said, Columbia County has more tourists in the winter than many counties, due to bonspiels at the county’s local curling clubs and the popularity of Cascade Mountain ski resort near Portage.
  • Attempting to track how many out-of-towners come to Columbia County for activities such as bicycling, fishing and boating.

Marianne Hanson, executive director of the Portage Area Chamber of Commerce, noted that people, when they hear the term “economic development,” tend to think of efforts to attract factories that employ many people. But manufacturing isn’t the only important industry in Columbia County.

“Sometimes people don’t see tourism as economic development,” Hanson said. “But it is economic development.”

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