An odd start to economic planning

If the view over the Plaza appears a bit a hazy, its not just the winter fog clouding the air. The new year and its revelry has done little to remove tension between the city council and Ashland’s Chamber of Commerce.

Sparks flew (albeit quietly and discreetly) in late December when three members of the council — Jack Hardesty, Cate Hartzell and David Chapman — sent a lengthy letter to the chamber asking probing questions about how the chamber spends its portion of the city’s hotel/motel tax.

The tax is a tourist tax slipped on the bottom of the hotel check-out receipt. It’s a “Hi, welcome to Ashland, thanks for spending a bunch of money, now give a little more to our coffers,” kind of tax. It is the best kind of tax because locals rarely pay it.

The city receives the majority of these funds. The remainder is given to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the chamber — two of the largest promoters of tourism for Ashland.

As much as the letter said — it includes nearly three pages of highly specific questions and requests — the intention of its authors remains woefully murky.

Sure, the letter lists three “goals” of the letter including, greater “communication and reporting methods that result in better planning and monitoring …”

But there is more to it than that. First, as the city is the biggest beneficiary of these funds, what is it doing to bolster the economy with its share?

Other than challenging the chamber, perhaps not much. Hardesty reportedly lobbied to add the need for an economic plan to the council’s 2005 goals, but nary a step has been taken since.

So the council’s first step toward economic planning is to rattle swords with the chamber?

One member of the chamber board of directors called the letter “an opening shot” in the upcoming battle for control, either of the chamber or of the funds the chamber receives.

Into this murky fog of convoluted politics we wade in early 2006. During the chamber review in March, expect this issue to move center stage. In the meantime, the chamber is stewing over the lack of respect from this segment of the council.

Many lines of discussion arise from this complex issue. For example, has the city council accomplished any type of economic plan of its own that it should start with a challenge to the chamber? Is it sensible to threaten tourism while hoping to build other parts of the economy? Isn’t it odd that at the same time Oregon Business Magazine highlights Ashland’s chamber for its efforts to develop an economic plan (“Ashland chamber studies industry clusters,”) three councilors question its efforts?

And most nagging in all of this is once again the approach this council has adopted. Rather than dealing with the important subject of economic planning by inviting all key parties to the table, a segment of the council sends what looks like an IRS audit letter to its business partner. Is this leadership?

Expect more from us on these critical subject. If you live, work and/or care about the future stability of Ashland, pay very close attention what your civic leaders are doing, how they are doing it and perhaps most importantly, what it seems they might end up doing when all is said and done.

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