Advocates push South Coast’s uniqueness

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer February 13, 2013 12:21 am

Travel Oregon is in the midst of a road trip, trying to reinvent the tourism wheel.

The government agency, created by the state Legislature in 2003 to build upon the tourism industry, is compiling comments from nine cities throughout Oregon to see how it can improve what it does to bring tourism to towns.

“We’re looking for themes,” CEO Todd Davidson told a group of about 20 chamber, city of Brookings and tourism officials at a Tourism Conversation meeting Monday. “Are there opportunities to tap into? What are the challenges you’re facing?”

He got a lot of answers.

“Brookings has a temperate climate,” said Janice Scanlon, director of the Chetco Activity Center. “We have friendly people. A heart of gold. We have world-class fishing. We have coastal stuff; we’re a hub to other cities. We’re a safe community.”

Even the deer use the crosswalks, a few people noted.

Ultimately, the groups agreed they’d like Travel Oregon to promote the uniqueness of the South Coast, definitively determine who visits Brookings and capture the impending surge of Baby Boomers to the retirement community.

Effectively getting that message out, however, has been a challenge. Also challenging, the two discussion groups agreed, will continue to be getting drivers to stop — and stay and spend — in Brookings unless the numerous agencies, coalitions and other groups can focus their market, better define their message and select the best medium by which to get it out.

Brookings-Harbor Chamber of Commerce noted all the brochures it publishes, the people it reaches and how many relocation packets requests it receives as an indicator that things are starting to recover.

But obstacles still persist, including the blessing and curse of Brookings’ isolation, that many in bigger Oregon cities might only know of the city because of headlines regarding the county’s financial situation — and even that many Oregonians have never heard of Brookings.

“This is the first time I’ve been in this community,” said Randy Harrington of Strategic Arts and Sciences, “and I’m a little smitten.”

“I used to take my people from Bend and go fishing,” said Bob Pieper, owner of Hearth and Home. “We’d go to Coos Bay and Florence. I thought that was the Oregon Coast. This is the best-kept secret of Oregon. I think Brookings is just starting to get on a national level of getting known.”

There are already established numerous agencies, coalitions, commissions and associations to do just that. But unity between them has not come to fruition — and in some cases is just fractious.

“There is that big elephant in the room that needs to be addressed,” said real estate agent and city tourism committee member Barbara Ciramella, of animosity between the chamber of commerce and the city. “We need to help each other make that connection work.”

The city and chamber ended a multi-year marketing relationship last spring, and the Brookings Merchants Association has stated it has no faith in the chamber in promoting the town.

Candice Michel of the city’s tourism advisory committee and speaker for one of the two groups, noted there is an economy of scale in joining forces.

“We need to harness a vision and head in the same direction,” she said. “If we’re cohesive, we’ll probably have success. We need to think out of the box.”

“Each community by itself cannot keep a visitor over a couple of days, said Chamber of Commerce CEO Les Cohen. “I’m glad Gold Beach has $200,000 (in tourism funds annually) to promote themselves. They all come down Highway 199 to get there. And Brookings has Gold Beach beat hands down.”

Many wave the “if we could just get them here,” banner, saying that if tourists come here, they tend to return or even relocate here.

Pieper noted that while logging and fishing have taken great economic hits in recent decades, retirement and tourism are trying to fill the gap.

“Tourism is the comeback industry coming out of this recession,” Davidson said.

Throughout the Great Recession, Oregon’s tourism fared well — even grew, Davidson said — in part due to agri-tourism, the promotion of craft microbrews, wineries and cheese makers.

Another change, likely due to technology, is that potential customers are increasingly more difficult to please. A weekender seeking a particular restaurant might give it a bad review if they arrive in town on a Sunday to find the establishment closed.

An immediate marketing tool could involve the implementation of QR codes, those little boxes on the corners of signs that feature black and white squiggly lines people scan with their smart phones to get more information about a product, place or event.

“We have to give people a reason to stop and they’ll stop,” Cohen said “They’ll get out of their car and walk from this shop to that shop to that shop.”

All that comes into play when developing a tourism plan.

The two groups at the meeting, held at the Best Western in Harbor, agreed that a lack of focus and, to a degree, leadership, are primarily to blame. 

“The biggest lack of leadership is our lack of vision,” Scanlon said. “It’s, ‘Plug this hole, plug this hole, plug this hole.’ We have to get all heading in the same direction.”

There are many factors in the city’s favor, however.

Young people chomping at the bit to get out of this town often return, as they feel it’s a good place to raise their children. The area’s isolation makes it perfect for tech industries to base their operations here as they don’t need to pay high overheads or have a street-front or interstate presence.

More immediately, noted Mayor Ron Hedenskog, two new multi-family developments are going up soon.

And the beloved bears — life-sized art-adorned sculptures hosted by Evergreen Bank that graced the streets of Brookings a few years ago — could be returning to Brookings next year, Hedenskog said.

Expanding other elements Brookings has to offer — Scanlon noted the popularity of birding — needs to be pursued, as well.

“We know what our values are, and they are easy to sell,” she said of the reasons people visit. “We just need to get focused.”