By Steve Segner
Sedona, AZ –The word around City Hall is that the city funding for the uptown visitor center is in jeopardy and the ramifications of the Chamber ending its contract with the City Hall, with no set plans for the future, are now being felt.
Here’s a bit of a history on the topic: The city of Sedona has funded the Visitor Center to the tune of $300,000 to 500,000+ for the last 9 years primarily using funds created by the .5% increase in bed tax in 2014. The .5% tax was created to enhance the marketing efforts of Sedona to attract high-value visitors and at the same time pay for needed visitor services and management like the Visitor Center.
Before 2014, for a decade or more, the city was funding the Visitor Center out of the city’s General tax funds in a partnership with the Chamber of Commerce. Here is the language used in many of the annual budgets of the city to explain the funding issue up to 2014: “The City collects a 3 percent bed tax in addition to the City sales tax. The bed tax supports the General Fund. A portion of the bed tax is used to fund the Chamber Visitor Center.”
Actual funding (from city budgets online) for the Visitor Center from ’05 to ’14 was: $563,515 – 2005, $602,732 – 2008, $837,111 – 2009, $498,113 – 2010, $478,207 – 2011, $274,500 – 2012
The first visitor center opened in 1956 in Uptown to serve as the headquarters of the fledgling tourism economy of the Sedona area.
Before the pandemic, it was common for the city the evaluate the Visitor Center as follows: “Assisted more than 280,000 visitors in-person at the Visitor Center, and 7,500 served via email, and via telephone. Managed 80 local volunteers, and held four training sessions and 12 FAM tours. Volunteers donated 11,076 hours with a value of $273,000”
Why might the city council consider withdrawing funding despite the apparent benefits?
- Sedona is Arizona’s second most visited attraction, with some estimates as high as 3,000,000 visitors annually. Sedona is important to the overall Arizona economy. Only the Grand Canyon attracts more to Arizona.
- In Arizona, 65 other destinations have personal visitor information centers mostly funded by a city, county, chamber, or tourism group.
- What makes Sedona so smart it can be rogue and not support a Visitor Center which is embraced and encouraged by the Arizona Office of Tourism (AOT).
- And this cannot be about being careful about spending city monies. Not now when the .5% bed tax created in 2014 is almost $1.5 Million which more than covers the cost of the center and leaves plenty of money for “marketing” and “management”. And now the city is the DMMO, it has taken over the function and expense of these types of visitor management responsibilities.
- In late 2019/early 2020, there were even discussions about adding another visitor “welcome” center to West Sedona. Before the Ranger Station opened in the village, there was another Visitor Center in the village operated in partnership with the chamber and the Forest Service.
So, what happened? Here are some facts that must be considered:
- Over 138,000 people used the Uptown Information Center last year to ask for help as well as gather information on events and places to visit. Most assuredly these visitors generated sales tax revenue for the city. The visitor center had twice this number of walk-ins before the pandemic. It is expected to gradually return to these levels over time.
- The 138,000+ visitors asking for help out of the millions that drive through and visit Sedona may seem like a small percentage, but the Visitor Center is a must for people visiting the first or second time to the area. And if there were additional Visitor Centers perhaps in West Sedona, even more, would use the services of an official Visitor Center.
- Even in the age of cell phones and social media, many visitors still need personal help, a person to answer questions, and maps and browse through literature for things to do and places to see.
- Have you ever visited Sedona’s mystical landscapes and needed guidance? Sedona, more than any other city in Arizona, should respect the needs of our guests and help guide their travels.
- Haven’t we as travelers ourselves taken advantage of “visitor centers” in other destinations around America and the world?
- If we lose the Uptown Visitor Center, it will not only be a slap in the face to local businesses but will send a message the Sedona city government is not working in the best interest of the local business community and, in particular, the uptown merchants.
- Finally, the public image of Sedona as a caring community that honestly wants our “guests” to have a great visit will have been thrown under the bus by the outward sign that we don’t want or care about the quality of their visit. Like it or not, this visitor center is the physical manifestation of Sedona as a tourist destination. It’s our “Welcome to Sedona” sign!
- In all fairness to the city, a breakdown in communication between the city and the chamber and the chamber’s decision last year not to renew the city contract left the question and operation of the visitor center unsettled. It was undetermined if the chamber had plans to maintain the operation on its own.
- But now, shouldn’t the city and chamber come up with a long-term management plan to operate the Visitor Center since its location, design, function, and purpose if ideal where it is now
Keeping a service that helps visitors and draws customers to Uptown seems reasonable, productive, and supports business.
- If 138,000 people use the Uptown Visitor Center, why is the city considering stopping the funding?
- If 65 other cities throughout Arizona manage visitor centers, why does the city think we don’t need one? These cities/tourist destinations don’t believe travel planning is all done on cell phones or home computers.
- Has the city probed local businesses to determine that they receive real value from having their products, restaurants, hotels, and events presented in the center? Without this valuable feedback, the city could be making the decision in a vacuum.
- Has the city considered who will answer the thousands of emails and phone calls every year placed by individuals seeking help and information about Sedona? This has always been the role of the Visitor Center volunteers and staff.
These are excellent questions businesses and residents should ask their city council representatives. https://www.sedonaaz.gov/your-government/departments/city-clerk/council-commissions-committees-boards/city-council/contact-the-entire-city-council
Editor’s Note : Steve Segner is a Sedona resident and owner of El Portal, a 12-room boutique hotel in Sedona