The Sedona City Council voted Tuesday, June 13, to offer to fund 80% of the operational costs for the Sedona Chamber of Commerce’s Uptown Visitor Center for the coming fiscal year.
Following the chamber’s April decision not to pursue an extension of its tourism marketing contract with the city, the chamber “determined we are unable to fund the Visitor Center,” chamber President and CEO Michelle Conway told the council. The chamber offered to continue running the Visitor Center under contract to the city for $530,000, or alternatively to rent the building to the city for city staff to operate. If the city did not choose to pursue either of these options, Conway told the council, the Visitor Center would close in August.
City staff recommended against council approval on the grounds that “the Visitor Center may not be delivering services commensurate with the cost of operations” and suggested that if the council did want to provide Visitor Center funding, it should be limited to 80% of the center’s direct costs.
“Why is it important to you that it stay open?” Councilwoman Melissa Dunn asked Conway.
“It’s an institution,” Conway said, comparing the Visitor Center to the Sedona Public Library or the Humane Society of Sedona. She added that the center “evokes civic pride” and “sets the stage for how Sedona is perceived” as well as helping visitors understand “the potential dangers of hiking.”
Councilman Brian Fultz wanted an update on the chamber’s financial health.
“You clearly stated that you were intending to operate the Visitor Center,” Fultz said. “Now you’re saying, ‘well, we don’t think we can do that.’ What is it overall that you are going to be able to do in the fiscal year? … What committed budget do you have?”
“We’re talking today about the Visitor Center,” Conway said, before adding, “Not even the first quarter.”
“I’m trying to understand whether we really need to fund this or whether you could fund this,” Fultz continued.
“We cannot fund the Visitor Center. Period,” Conway said.
“Out of respect to the city and the years of partnership we’ve had together, we wanted to provide the city with the first opportunity to continue the operations of the Visitor Center,” elaborated Jennifer Perry, chairwoman of the chamber’s board of directors.
“I’m not getting my question answered when the day is done and it sounds like you’re unwilling to answer it, so I yield,” Fultz said.
Councilwoman Kathy Kinsella was interested in obtaining the chamber’s list of volunteers and their contact information.
“If funding doesn’t come through and you close the doors Aug. 1, what happens to the volunteer list?” Kinsella asked.
“If you would like it, we could talk about it, but that’s the intellectual property of the Sedona Chamber of Commerce,” Conway replied.
If the city were to rent the building only, Kinsella continued, “would the volunteer list be a part of that?”
“It would be up for discussion,” Perry said, but added that the volunteers would have to agree to the chamber sharing their information publicly with the city.
During the public comment period, former Vice Mayor John Martinez told council that he had asked some of the Visitor Center volunteers if they would be interested in volunteering for the city if it were to take over the Visitor Center, and they had told him they would not.
Vice Mayor Holli Ploog queried the chamber’s inclusion of an administrative overhead fee in its Visitor Center budget and its proposed retention of some Visitor Center revenues.
“If we’re paying 100% of the cost of the Visitor Center, why should you earn revenue from it?” Ploog asked.
“This is a business, and we’ve been passing through services for years,” Perry said. “That’s not good business.”
“I really agree with you. I don’t think that was a smart thing to do. But now we’re renting the whole thing,” Ploog said. “It’s a rub.”
“It’s not business sense to do work just to do work,” Perry said. “If we are to run it, the board feels strongly we should be running it with best practices of business.”
Councilwoman Jessica Williamson described funding the center’s operation as a question of “government’s role in a community.”
“Government’s role is to support businesses. That doesn’t necessarily return one-for-one on the dollar,” Williamson said. “To manage tourists, I think that’s worth money … I think that’s really an important role of government … It serves residents. That’s another thing government does … The Visitor Center provides a very, very good return on our money when you look at what government’s role is.”
As for the Visitor Center’s public restrooms, Williamson characterized them as “incredible value for the dollar.”
Williamson further drew a contrast between the council’s previous enthusiasm for a fee-for-service model and its ambivalence toward the proposed contract.
“I also want to look back at the meeting that we had, where Pete [Furman] was the only one who wasn’t saying, ‘Yeah, fee-forservice is great, we love fee-for-service,’” Williamson said. “That’s what we were supposed to have. Every single other person on the council, including me, was a fee-for-service person, and this is fee-for-service. They did exactly what we told them we wanted them to do.”
She suggested approving the contract for the coming year and pursuing a rebuilt partnership with the chamber in the meantime.
“I don’t think this serves a huge number of people,” Dunn said. “I think it serves a very niche market.”
Councilman Pete Furman said that the Visitor Center offered “some value,” but that it was wasting time to discuss what should be “more of a partnership model.”
“I’m not comfortable with an 80-20 split,” Furman added, noting that among the service provider contracts the council had awarded earlier at the same meeting, “nobody is even over 60%” for city funding. However, he said he would agree to 80% funding for one year in a spirit of partnership.
“I don’t think 100% funding,” Kinsella said. “I can’t entertain it if there’s not a cost-share model … I think 80-20 was well thought out.”
“This should be a cost-sharing arrangement,” Fultz said. “I probably can live with 80-20.”
“I don’t see the Visitor Center has to make money,” Mayor Scott Jablow said. “I agree a cost-share would be better.”
Dunn said she would be “amenable” to a cost-sharing arrangement, while Williamson commented, “100% would fail, and I would rather have a Visitor Center.”
Following the emergence of consensus on providing the chamber with 80% of its requested funding, the council voted unanimously to offer the chamber a Visitor Center contract at $368,800. The contract will need to go before the chamber’s board for final approval, which will take place at the board’s next meeting on Thursday, June 22. Perry noted that “there are other things the board is evaluating for that property.”
Revote after the break*
Council returned to reconsider the contract after a brief recess on the grounds that the approved sum of $368,800, which had been calculated by city staff on a cost-sharing basis, represented 80% of the Visitor Center’s operating costs, not 80% of the chamber’s proposed budget, which would have included the chamber’s administrative costs for $424,000.
Kinsella and Furman said they had voted for the city manager’s proposal based on direct costs excluding the chamber’s fee, while Ploog said she had thought the proposal was for 80% of the chamber’s requested budget. Williamson argued the chamber was entitled to a fee for its services under a fee-for-service model.
Furman and Dunn called the reconsideration “a last-minute negotiation from the dais.”
The reconsideration passed 4-3, with Furman, Kinsella and Dunn in opposition, with the chamber’s contract amount being raised to $424,000.
- * Details of the council’s reconsideration and increase of the chamber’s award were not included in the print version of this story as they occurred after the second recess.