Fresno Convention Visitors Bureau on chopping block

June 17, 2010 | By More

Fresno Visitors Bureau on chopping block
Mayor cites dismal budget in plan.
SOURCE: George Hostetter / The Fresno Bee 10:35 PM on Sunday, Jun. 06, 2010

The downtown improvement district would assess property owners in a specific downtown area for added services such as security and marketing. Hotels outside the downtown district’s boundaries would not be charged.

Klein said he is worried about having to pay both assessments.

“It’s a little burdensome when you talk about these extra expenses and revenues being down,” Klein said.

Another worry for bureau supporters: Can a new tourism taxing district be created in just seven months?

Eben notes that about 45 cities or counties have some form of a tourism improvement district. One new tourism district, serving Napa County, took nine months to form.

For Fresno, “the clock is ticking,” said Smith with the Chamber of Commerce.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau has a long and sometimes chaotic past.

The Fresno Convention Bureau was born soon after World War II, the Convention Center opened in 1966, and a separate Visitors Bureau was created in the mid-1980s.

The merged Fresno Convention and Visitors Bureau opened for business July 1, 1987.

From the start, the CVB struggled to define its mission and secure its funding. Did it focus on the entire county or the Fresno metropolitan area? Were conventions the answer to growth, or tourists heading to the Sierra Nevada? Should Fresno County contribute more money?

The CVB also was plagued with periodic organizational disputes and public-relations black eyes. For example, in October 2007 a former CVB bookkeeper was jailed for embezzling nearly $50,000 from the nonprofit agency.

Through it all, Fresno City Hall stuck with the CVB, although often with grumbling from top elected officials. They said the city had too much borrowed money plowed into its Convention Center, and too much political capital invested in downtown revitalization plans — based in significant part on a thriving convention and meeting business — to risk completely eliminating this troubled marketing entity.

Now Fresno City Hall faces a nearly $31 million general fund deficit through 2015 and Swearengin is scrounging for every dollar just to keep police on neighborhood patrol.

What becomes of the Convention Center, which costs the city about $7 million annually in debt payments and subsidies, if the CVB dies? What becomes of downtown revitalization, not to mention such downtown employers as the Radisson and the recently reopened Holiday Inn, if the Convention Center becomes a set of largely empty buildings?

Referring to City Hall’s decision to cut off CVB funding by Dec. 31, the Chamber’s Smith said, “I’m not so sure I understand the wisdom of that. It seems to me if we own the convention buildings and a theater, somebody needs to keep putting conventions through there. That benefits the city.”

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