Tourism Ucluelet is now clear to live by its slogan and pursue its wildest dreams more freely after the town’s municipal council agreed to relinquish its oversight of the destination marketing organization’s spending.
Tourism Ucluelet’s budget is fueled by the Municipal and Regional District Tax, formerly known as the additional hotel room tax, which is a 2 per cent fee paid by tourists staying at local fixed roof accommodations. Tourism Ucluelet has expressed interest in raising that amount to 3 per cent in its next five-year budget, which is due in September.
In a report to council in January, Tourism Ucluelet treasurer Julian Ling suggested the DMO expects to collect $355,000 in general MRDT funds this year.
Since becoming a Resort Municipality in 2009, the District of Ucluelet has received the MRDT funding as its designated recipient and then passed it along to Tourism Ucluelet to be spent on destination marketing and visitor experience initiatives.
During their June 14 regular meeting, Ucluelet’s municipal council reviewed and approved a request from Tourism Ucluelet to relinquish its role as the designated recipient and allow the funds to go directly to Tourism Ucluelet.
A separate portion of MRDT funding collected by online accommodations and earmarked for affordable housing initiatives would also be collected by Tourism Ucluelet, but then transferred to the district.
Tourism Ucluelet estimates the online portion of the tax will bring in roughly $100,000 this year.
“It’s basically swapping that collection status over to Tourism Ucluelet from the district,” explained Ucluelet CAO Duane Lawrence, adding the move would streamline Tourism Ucluelet’s budget approval process.
“They can make decisions a little bit quicker because, as the designated recipient, they are the reporting and oversight body for those funds whereas right now, that’s the responsibility of the municipality. Tourism Ucluelet as the DMO is required to report and work with the municipality to come up with plans, get resolutions from council to approve the plans and any major changes to the funding model or the strategic plan that they have. That would be bypassed. They would no longer need to directly do that.”
Lawrence added that while the council approval process would be bypassed, there would still be annual reporting and continued engagement on an ongoing basis.
“The legislative requirement for the municipality to give approvals is reduced,” he said.
He suggested district staff’s work to collect the MRDT funds and transfer them over to Tourism Ucluelet is “not burdensome,” and that the change was requested by the destination marketing organization.
“Where this really affects things is for Tourism Ucluelet because it really does streamline their reporting requirements and gaining authorization to move things along in the reporting and budgetary process,” he said.
He added that Tourism Ucluelet is offering council a voting seat on its board as part of the change.
Coun. Marilyn McEwen asked if this is a “norm” for municipalities and Lawrence responded that “it’s mixed.”
“It’s a prerogative of council and it’s also based on the relationship that the DMO and the municipality have. The stronger the relationship, the more likely that that designation is handed over,” he said.
Tourism Ucluelet’s executive director Denise Stys-Norman spoke at the meeting and suggested Tourism Ucluelet would continue to work closely with the district, but is ready to take on more of an independent role.
“TU has worked really hard to really bring itself forward as a reputable organization, making sure that we’re thinking about the community as well as our businesses because without our businesses we don’t have the community and vice versa,” she said.
“We know that without partnering and having a positive working relationship with the district, neither can succeed properly.”
She added Tourism Ucluelet’s board has proven its ability to take the next step as “a leader in the community, as an independent organization.”
Mayor Mayco Noel opposed the switch, suggesting there are benefits to Tourism Ucluelet presenting to all of council rather than just one representative on the board.
“For me, if it’s not broken, why fix it?,” he asked. “We all know from our experience that only one person is going to hear that information and those conversations. To me, I find that there’s value when TU is coming before us. I don’t think we get in the kitchen with TU. This is not about getting money quicker, you’ve got a healthy bank account. I think everything’s fine there.”
He added the district is fortunate to have a “healthy relationship” with Tourism Ucluelet currently.
“There’s also some great examples of communities that are not very healthy between their council and their DMO’s where there is a different discourse,” he said.
He also expressed concern over the potential for Tourism Ucluelet deciding to run a campaign that doesn’t match council’s views of the “community lens.”
“I’m not saying that’s going to happen but, at the end of the day, there’s potential for that,” he said. “They’re all community minded people that are on the (TU) board… It’s not like there’s a big, evil person behind the drapes there. But, what could this look like going down the road?”
He added that he believes changes could be on the horizon to the structure of MRDT spending, including more dollars for affordable housing and infrastructure projects.
Coun Lara Kemps suggested relationships between council and Tourism Ucluelet could change as different people take different positions.
“It’s fine with who’s at the table right now and who you are but, if that was to ever change, it might not be the same dynamic,” she said.
Stys-Norman responded that the board’s voting processes would ensure stakeholders have a say in the DMO’s direction.
“We always ensure that we have a really positive working relationship with the district because it would not be to anybody’s benefit to fracture that or revert to the way things were in the past,” she said. “We are all about being positive and moving forward.”
She also noted council could choose to rescind the decision if it doesn’t work out.
“I think, for us, we’ve rebuilt our trust and our relationships and we have really strong governance in place that’s continuing to improve,” she said. “Should something happen in the next five years that TU goes off the rails, council has the right, and the district, to rescind that decision and actually become the designated recipient again.”
Kemps said she would support the transition as long as engagement continued between TU and the district.
Coun Rachelle Cole asked Lawrence if he had any thoughts for or against the request.
“It’s a matter of balance,” the CAO responded. “As council has been discussing, the primary detriment, I would say, specifically for the municipality, would be that there is no guarantee of the same level of engagement that we currently have with the DMO…There’s no mandated requirement, other than the mandated annual report, that would require the DMO to come before council more than on that annual basis… Right now, we have a very positive working relationship with the DMO and also a requirement to engage.”
Coun Jennifer Hoar said she appreciated the move could be rescinded “if things went sideways,” but added she was “on the fence” because she agreed with Noel that council benefits from hearing information as a group, rather than relying on one member to pass information along.
“This one’s tough,” she said. “The TU-district relationship has certainly changed and I agree it’s a much more mature association.”
Cole asked Stys-Norman for clarification on why Tourism Ucluelet had requested the change.
“The reason that this would be something you’re asking for is because, should this (council) table be different in the future, you think you have it good now and you want to make sure that that that’s status quo or better?” Cole asked.
Stys-Norman said councillors and TU boardmembers will change overtime and the relationship between the two bodies will need to remain strong.
“Trusting the process is really what it comes down to,” Stys-Norman said.
The vote passed 3-2 with Kemps, McEwen and Hoar voting in favour and Noel and Cole opposed.