Wallowa County Commissioners heard a presentation, Sept. 8, by Joseph Chamber of Commerce President Becky Rushton (owner of Outlaw Restaurant and Saloon and Indian Lodge in Joseph) proposing a relocation of the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce offices to Joseph and potentially renaming it the Joseph-Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce.
Both actions, Rushton said, would take advantage of the well-known draw of Joseph without disrupting the broader mission of promoting the entire county.
“People search for Joseph, not Wallowa County,” Rushton said. “They often haven’t even heard of Wallowa Lake and are surprised when we ask, ‘Have you been to the lake?’ You’d be amazed how many people drive in on Highway 39 and only know of Joseph, have never even heard about the rest of the county.”
Mike Lockhart, president of the Wallowa Lake Tourism Committee, agreed that most tourists do not understand the many attractions of the county.
“We started re-branding as The Village at Wallowa Lake three years ago because people didn’t understand what was there,” he said. “A lot of people would never get past Joseph if not for the (visitors information) booth. The booth is not just representing Joseph, but the county as a whole.”
“We do trip planning and route people through Imnaha and everywhere,” said booth employee Michael Maslach.
In addition to keeping the booth open for most weekends and holidays when tourists are most often in town, the Joseph Chamber manages a Facebook page and a website. Both sites are dependent on the WC Chamber to fill the needs of the potential tourist for hard-copy brochures and magazines and for detailed information needed to plan their trip.
“We’re a team player,” said Rushton. “We can’t afford the staff answering the phone so we redirect folks to WC Chamber.”
Maslach, who has worked the Joseph booth for three years, seconds the notion that it’s a team effort.
“WC Chamber makes our copies for us, they put magazines and brochures on the bus for us if we call, they have the storage space for all that paper. I just love working with them. Without them it would be impossible to operate.”
But despite the sense of team playing with regard to serving the visitors, there was a decided lack of team playing with regard to funding, Rushton said.
Currently Joseph Chamber of Commerce is paying for operation of a tourism booth that serves an estimated 10,000 tourist per season, and costs approximately $13,000 per year to manage. That $13,000 comes partly from WC Chamber ($2,600); $4,000 in motel/hotel tax money (which they didn’t get this year); and membership fees ($50 per year per business).
Joseph Chamber had applied for a $4,000 grant for operating expenses from the hotel/motel tax fund in February and hadn’t received a reply from the county.
WC Chamber, by contrast, has a budget of $120,000 per year to promote the entire county.
Although the commissioners assured Rushton the lack of funding was an oversight and immediately remedied that by pledging $5,000 from the video poker fund now and again in January 2016, Rushton felt the time had come to address the problem of consistent funding.
If the WC Chamber were located in Joseph, Rushton argued, the tourism booth could be absorbed into WC Chamber responsibilities and duplication of fees, such as workman’s comp payments, could be eliminated. Nor would there be a need to limit the amount of business representation — provided the WC Chamber either financially support the booth or remain open during peak tourism hours.
Right now, the WC Chamber is not open on weekends or holidays.
Nor is the Forest Service, and the Joseph booth fields a lot of questions about trails.
If the office was relocated, Rushton proposes that the two full-time employees of WC Chamber expand duties to man the booth on weekends and holidays, or that the WC Chamber pay for the additional employee to man the booth.
Rushton pointed out that unless tourists were served on weekends and holidays, they were not getting the service their hotel/motel tax dollars were meant to support. “The tourists are paying for a service and this is what they’re getting — closed on weekends, closed on federal holidays,” she said.
After providing the $5,000 support, the commissioners advised that the issue was best discussed by the two boards of the chambers.