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Council tackles Travel Medford, again

A simmering debate over continuing Travel Medford's 42-year relationship with the city is about to heat up again.

Medford City Council, which last year found itself at an impasse in discussions over Travel Medford's connection to The Chamber of Medford/Jackson County, agreed to an add two years to a pre-existing five-year contract. The council hoped to discuss other options for an agreement before authorizing another contract with an organization that will receive more than $1 million in 2018, when the existing contract ends.

"We just blindly hand over $1.1 million, and we don’t know what they do with it," said Councilor Clay Bearnson, who has led the charge to separate the functions of Travel Medford from the chamber.

The council will hear a presentation from Travel Medford at a noon study session Thursday at City Hall, 411 W. Eighth St. Officials from Travel Medford plan to update the council on improvements it has made over the past year to address some of the issues raised, including criticisms that the chamber is overly political. Travel Medford will also provide information about what it does to promote tourism.

Travel Medford receives a portion of transient lodging taxes, which have increased 31 percent over the past three years.

In 2014, Travel Medford received $732,133. In 2015, the amount increased to $828,642, and in 2016, it was $955,999.

Bearnson said he supports bringing the functions of Travel Medford in-house, and he said he plans to bring a "whole laundry list of concerns" to the Thursday meeting.

"I'm hopeful we can solve it once and for all," Bearnson said.

Councilor Dick Gordon said he doesn't support bringing Travel Medford under the direction of the city.

"That would be a dumb move on the part of the council," he said. "We don't have the staff, knowledge or experience."

Gordon said the council does need to resolve issues relating to the Travel Medford contract as soon as possible, because advertising and marketing efforts have to be planned 12 months in advance.

"The council needs to give direction to the city manager as to what to do," he said.

Gordon said he wants to hear from the council and from Travel Medford before forming an opinion on the next step.

"I don't mistrust the chamber as much as Clay does," he said.

The council study session will also bring three new councilors up to speed on the Travel Medford issue, which partially contributed to the ouster of the previous city manager, Eric Swanson.

Two of Travel Medford's top employees, Anne Jenkins and Jez Kline, left their jobs last year. Travel Medford currently has four full-time employees who work in the chamber offices in Medford. They report to Brad Hicks, president and chief executive officer of the chamber. 

Eli Matthews, senior vice president of Travel Medford and a former city councilor, said his organization and the chamber have taken steps to answer the council's concerns.

The chamber political action committee no longer provides campaign contributions to the mayor or council to avoid any conflict with Travel Medford, he said.

A different governance structure has led to the formation of a tourism council made up of hotel leaders and the community, Matthews said.

More transparency in communications has led to a monthly email update to encourage input, he said.

Travel Medford pays the chamber $1,300 a month to rent space, and the chamber doesn't charge for landlines used by Travel Medford, Matthews said.  

He also cited the increasing dollars that have flowed into city coffers to show that tourism is on the rise locally.

Jackson County saw $547.9 million in travel and tourism in 2016, a 3.8 percent increase over 2015, according to a report by Dean Runyan Associates for the Oregon Tourism Commission.

"In a nutshell, we're very optimistic," Matthews said.

Councilor Kim Wallen, liaison to the chamber for the council, said she's personally inclined to go ahead with another contract with Travel Medford, though with greater oversight by the city that is clearly spelled out.

"That's where I think the city's focus should be," she said.

Travel Medford has spent decades establishing a knowledge base that would be difficult to assume, Wallen said.

"I have no interest in bringing this in-house," she said.

Travel Medford has a big budget, but Wallen said other cities give similar organizations a larger share of their transient lodging tax.

She said her main concern is that the city of Medford gets the most benefit from its investment in promoting tourism locally, but Wallen said she's not sure how other councilors will react to any discussions about a longer contract with Travel Medford.

"I don't know how we're going to land on this," she said. 

— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.