Tourism grant causes controversy

Klootchy Creek County Park off U.S. Highway 26.

In a rare move, the Cannon Beach City Council has pulled grant money the city’s Tourism and Arts Commission had recommended for a controversial trail project.

The Northwest Trail Alliance wanted the grant for a network of bicycle trails on private timberland near Klootchy Creek County Park off U.S. Highway 26.

But city councilors and others were concerned the request was not related to the arts, was not within city limits, raised legal questions, and had no measurable benefit to the local lodging community.

In a 3-2 vote, the City Council moved the $12,143 into a reserve. It is rare for the council to break from the commission’s recommendation.

“We hate to go against the committee’s recommendation, but (the project) just didn’t fit,” City Councilor Mike Benefield said. “If we’re going to fund trails, let’s enhance trails in Cannon Beach rather than spending money out in the county.”

Matthew Weintraub, the vice president of the Northwest Trail Alliance, said the alliance is disappointed in the decision.

“It is disappointing for the Tourism and Arts Commission, as it undermines their work and expertise they put into evaluating the proposals and presentations,” he said.

The controversy points to a larger disagreement within the city and the commission about the evolving purpose of the grant money.

Since 2008, the Tourism and Arts Commission has been charged with reviewing grant applications and regulating the distribution of the Tourism and Arts Fund, which was established with an increase in the lodging tax. Local nonprofits are to use the money to promote tourism activities that encourage people to rent rooms in Cannon Beach, with an extra emphasis on supporting the arts.

But some grant applicants have shifted away from this focus, with recent awards going to support new events like the Fat Bike Festival and promotional videos for the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce.

“The whole reason this started was to focus on the arts,” said City Councilor Nancy McCarthy, who voted with Benefield and City Councilor Brandon Ogilvie against the money for bike trails. Mayor Sam Steidel and City Councilor George Vetter voted to defer to the commission.

The Tourism and Arts Commission itself was split when evaluating the request from the trail alliance.

Commissioners in favor saw the project as a year-round benefit to the tourism industry, which is trying to attract more visitors with interests in outdoor sports.

“It’s an investment in the future. I liken it to surfing. Twenty years ago, you just saw a few surfboards on cars. Now they are everywhere, and we have multiple surf shops to support it,” Commissioner Greg Swedenborg said. “That’s where biking is going.”

Some voted against the grant request after former City Attorney Tammy Herdener raised legal questions about whether lodging tax dollars, which come with restrictions, could be used to finance the trail project.

There was debate about whether the trail system qualified as a tourism facility, which is defined by the state as “real property that has a useful life of 10 or more years” and substantially supports tourism. The trail alliance and the private landowner have a five-year agreement, which could raise questions, Herdener said.

Others took issue with the fact that the project had no ties with the arts and was not based in Cannon Beach.

While Weintraub recognizes the arts emphasis of the grant money, he said nothing in the ordinance precludes other tourism-based proposals from being considered. He pointed to the Fat Bike Festival he pitched last year, which was also met with skepticism, but turned out to be successful when it debuted in April.

“This is a Tourism and Arts Fund, and the city’s directive is to give preference to arts,” Weintraub said. “But preference doesn’t mean to exclude.”

Weintraub said he personally is in favor of expanding arts funding in Cannon Beach, but believes the city also needs to find ways to fund opportunities for “a broad array of visitor attractions.”

The bike trail system near Klootchy Creek will still be built, Weintraub said, but perhaps not as quickly because of the loss of the grant money.

If the city is not going to fund the trail project, then Weintraub wants city councilors to use the $12,143 to improve trails and walkways in town.

“The Northwest Trail Alliance is more than willing to provide advice and guidance in such a plan,” he said.


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