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Portage tourism anticipates 50% hit after COVID-19 closures, delays canoe attractions
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Portage tourism anticipates 50% hit after COVID-19 closures, delays canoe attractions

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A plan to purchase fiberglass canoes for placement around the city as a tourist attraction was knocked off schedule because of COVID-19, which has prompted tourism officials to delay their installation.

The half canoes, reaching 8 feet tall and spanning roughly 3 feet wide, were designed by FAST Corporation of Sparta. The plan was to have them delivered to the city by April 1.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Marianne Hanson, a member of the Portage Tourism Commission and executive director of the Portage Area Chamber of Commerce, said during a recent commission meeting that the company was deemed “non-essential” under Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order issued March 17 over concerns of spreading COVID-19.

When the order was struck down May 13 by the state Supreme Court, they began work again, but Hanson said the molds have not been realized as physical attractions because other projects scheduled to be completed before the one commissioned by Portage need to be finished first.

If they were to complete the canoes, the city would likely not receive them until September. The company told Hanson that the city would pay the remaining $12,000 owed to the company after they complete the canoes over winter months. The delay would mean the tourist attractions would not be placed in the city until the summer months of 2021.

“To get canoes in September and October; all we’re going to do is store them,” Commission Chair Dennis Nachreiner said during the teleconference meeting Tuesday. “That just doesn’t seem reasonable to me.”

Plans for canoes had included recruitment of local artists to paint them based on commission guidelines and obtaining corporate or nonprofit sponsorships for two years at a time. The commission agreed in January to budget roughly $60,000 for the structures, which are about $3,300 per piece plus the cost of installation. With the delay, the remaining $12,000 to be paid to the company can be bumped on to the 2021 budget.

The reduction in expense would benefit the tourism department, which is likely to struggle this year, according to members who discussed room tax revenue during the meeting. Generally, they agreed, the commission receives between $160,000 to $170,000 from room tax revenue each year. Nachreiner siad the commission budgets all of the revenue for anticipated expenses, which will now prove to be a challenge because of reduced vacationers during the epidemic.

“I believe that this year we’ll very easily see that cut in half,” Nachreiner said.

Commissioner Carol LaVigne said it is “a smart move” to cut down marketing costs to avoid using up the entire surplus fund for the tourism department.

“It keeps our budget in mind and gets us so we’re not overstretched,” LaVigne said. “You have to keep your face out there and you have to keep it top of mind, but you also have to work within your budget.”

Hanson said some funds are contractual obligations, which the group agreed should be honored. They discussed how best to address additional advertising needs. Hanson said advertising is important to gain visitors to businesses that are now open, but acknowledged the group should be wary of spending money that may not be beneficial.

“Advertising is very important and that’s what’s going to draw people to our community,” Hanson said. “What I struggle with is, we have to have the room tax dollars to pay for the advertising. I don’t want to see us have it all go away.”

Continuing advertising already under contract is a positive move, Hanson said, and the group could consider balancing advertisements by cutting in half advertising expenses to still bring tourists to the city. Room tax totals for the first three months of 2020 were $12,000 less than last year, Hanson said.

The contractual amount without the canoe funding is about $48,000, Hanson said, with $34,000 left to spend in advertising they had been considering.

“I don’t know how much return on our investment we’re going to have,” Nachreiner said. “I believe we should hold off on spending advertising dollars for the return on our investment because of COVID-19.”

Nachreiner said a surplus from 2019 is fortunate because if they hadn’t stored reserve funding, the tourism department would be in the difficult position of trying to figure out how to pay its contractual obligations.

Figures are still unknown for the likely least profitable months of 2020 so far. The commission received income numbers for January through March, which Hanson said were $12,000 less than in 2019. Nachreiner said he’d heard similar numbers anecdotally.

“We’ll have a couple more months of tourism dollars, which I don’t think is going to be very much,” Nachreiner said. “We’re going to get the worst ones of COVID-19; we haven’t seen April or May.”

The commission budgets all of its planned room tax income to be used within a year. Without planned revenue because of the unforeseen pandemic, Nachreiner said the best option would be to cut down costs where available.

“If we have to take an $80,000 hit this year, which I don’t think is unreasonable to think at this time, that will almost use up 100% of our reserves,” Nachreiner said. “I’m not opposed to using some of it, I just think it’s bad practice to use all of it. You have to be fiscally responsible.

Hanson said in speaking to lodging facilities in Portage she found that the occupancy rate over Memorial Day generally runs around 90%, but this year, they were about 20% full. The lack of funding will likely result in a decrease for city organizations which rely on grants and other forms of monetary resources from the department, which commissioners noted will be an ongoing conversation in future meetings.

Follow Bridget on Twitter @cookebridget or contact her at 608-745-3513.

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