The first discussion of the potential five percent increase of the Transient Lodging Tax, proposed by County Commissioners last week, took place April 3 following the Wallowa County Fair Board Meeting at Cloverleaf Hall.
Wallowa County Fairgrounds would be a beneficiary of the increased lodging tax, as would the Sheriff’s Office and Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce.
While the business representatives present for the discussion could agree that raising money for these entities was a worthy endeavor, the tax increase proposed to generate more funds was uniformly resisted.
“There’s just a point where you price yourself out of the market,” said Becky Rushton, who owns multiple businesses in Joseph and acts as the Joseph Chamber president.
Although Commissioner Todd Nash reported that, in his personal experience, other resort towns or areas were charging even more than the nearly 15 percent total proposed for Wallowa County, the business owners said making a comparison to what resort communities charged was comparing apples to oranges.
“You have to factor in . . . that we are at the very end of the road. We are remote,” said Vicki Searles, executive director of Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce.
Some resort communities offer year round luxury amenities and nearby skiing. Wallowa County, with a much shorter tourist season, a much different vacation model, and does not compete for the same customer, business owners said.
“We have to be cognizant that there is an amount that is too much,” agreed fair board member Mike Hayward, “That will always be a concern. It’s always been a challenge in Wallowa County because we are so seasonal. You could probably charge a 100 percent tax and be full July and August, but what about the other months of the year?”
Hoteliers suggested a two-part investigation be undertaken before any action by Wallowa County Commissioners to put the proposed tax on the fall ballot.
First, they would like to see a plan for the fairgrounds that would position it as a more desirable conference and event location. Hoteliers would also like to see at least a ballpark figure of what it would cost to both improve the fairgrounds and maintain it.
Second, hoteliers expressed an interest in seeing the lodging tax rates across the county equalized before any other action was taken. Currently Enterprise and Joseph pay 9.8 percent, lodging businesses at Wallowa Lake pay 6.8 percent, and Airbnbs in the county pay 6.8 percent. Business interests at the meeting said they would like to see how much money would be raised through equalization alone.
Other ideas discussed included changing the focus of some tourism advertising.
“We’re not capturing our markets,” said Rushton, who argued that more “heads in beds” in shoulder seasons would result in more tax dollars even without raising the rate.
The idea of establishing a business tax in the county was also floated. Such a move that would raise a bit of money and create a list of businesses. That list would have the additional benefit of improving Wallowa Chamber of Commerce’s ability to make recommendations to visitors and individuals looking to move to the county.
Commissioner Todd Nash assured the group that the commissioners were not rushing to a decision and would consider two questions: “Do we want to do this at all?” and “If we do it, what is appropriate?”
A second meeting is scheduled for April 10 at 6:30 p.m. at Cloverleaf Hall.