City wrestles with tourist messaging

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Visitor website dark, businesses frustrated as council looks to hire contractor

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Restless tourists wondering when they’ll be able to pack up the car and head to Ouray won’t find an answer on the website dedicated solely to marketing the self-proclaimed "Outdoor Recreation Capital of Colorado.”

If they call the Ouray Visitors’ Center, they might get a message about hours of operation — from last fall.

Five weeks after deciding not to renew the marketing services and Visitors’ Center operations contract long held by the Ouray Tourism Office, the city is struggling to keep visitors informed about public health orders and business closures in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. A request for proposals on digital messaging yielded a series of bids that Ouray City Council members acknowledged were much broader in scope than what they need right now.

Anxious and frustrated business owners urged the council to take action.

“I need to say the messaging, as you knew, is late. We’re late in this game,” Lora Slawitschka, owner of the Ouray Chalet Inn, told councilors during Monday’s council meeting. “We need to make a decision and move forward. We’re losing the opportunity to say we’re here, we’re alive.”

The council will meet today (May 7) with two local graphic design and marketing contractors, Gretadesign and Markus Van Meter Inc., and intends to select one of them to provide information online and via social media about how Ouray is responding to the virus and when businesses and tourist attractions are expected to reopen.

City officials decided against renewing the OTO’s contract, which expired March 31, citing concerns about the nonprofit organization’s financial stability and the city’s ability to subsidize the OTO’s work Nearly go percent of revenue generated from the city’s lodging taxes funnels into the tourism fund, which was the OTO’s primary source of funding. With the onset of COVID-19, lodging taxes have dried up.

The website that was maintained by the OTO, ouraycolorado.com, hasn’t been updated since March 26. The Visitors’ Center has been closed since the end of March, and city officials talked about having phone calls that come into the Visitors’ Center transferred to City Hall. But Ouray business owners said they’ve had customers tell them they can’t get through to anyone, or that they encounter a voicemail listing the center’s fall hours.

A call to the number for the Visitors’ Center went unanswered on Tuesday.

“We’ve had a very dark five weeks,” Tamara Gulde, co-owner of Mountain Fever Shirts & Gifts, told councilors. “And I’m really disappointed that this council hasn’t gotten it up and running in the voicemail department. You canceled a contract with people that know how to message and have spent years on how to do that. Even simple messaging, there was no forethought when you cut them off.”

Acting City Administrator Melissa Drake said Visitors’ Center Manager Dawn Glanc recorded a message for incoming calls letting people know the Visitors’ Center was closed and providing the number for City Hall for them to call. But at some point “recently,” the message reverted to an old recording, Drake said, with Glanc saying she didn’t know how that happened. Drake said it should be fixed soon.

The city issued an RFP last month for digital messaging services, with councilors professing the importance of letting prospective visitors know the city is still around and will welcome them when the time is appropriate. The city received four responses. Two came from Markus Van Meter, a professional photographer who just resigned as a Ouray School teacher and managed the OTO’s social media accounts in 2019, and Gretchen McArthur, a member of the OTO’s board of directors who owns graphic design company Gretadesign. The other two came from companies who bid on a previous marketing RFP the city issued last summer — Vista Works of Buena Vista and Agency Tourism Marketing of Portland, Oregon. That contract ultimately went to the OTO.

At Councilor Glenn Boyd’s urging, Mayor Greg Nelson disclosed that Van Meter had taken a photo for one of his mayoral campaign flyers last year, as well as set up his Facebook page and his website. Nelson said Van Meter donated that work He said he would be willing to recuse himself from a decision on awarding a contract.

After asking Nelson some questions, including whether he had promised Van Meter anything in exchange for his services, City Attorney Carol Viner said she didn’t believe Nelson had a conflict of interest and recommended he not recuse himself from a vote.

Mayor Pro Tem John Wood also acknowledged that Van Meter had managed the website for his distillery, KJ Wood Distillers, for four years but stopped performing that work late last summer.

The prices of the four bids varied significantly, from $6,000 a month from Van Meter to more than $20,000 a month from McArthur. All of them offered comprehensive marketing services, something councilors acknowledged was beyond both what the city can afford and needs.

City leaders have not identified a source of funding for digital messaging. Councilors who recently approved more than $2 million in budget cuts said they were reluctant to take the city’s tourism fund into the red.

Ultimately, councilors unanimously approved a plan to establish a monthly budget of $5,000 for digital messaging and will sit down with McArthur and Van Meter during a special meeting today to ask them what sort of work they can perform for that amount of money. The council is then expected to select one of them.

In other business, councilors:

• Unanimously approved an emergency ordinance suspending late fees and interest on city utility bills through Oct. 10.

• Unanimously approved an agreement that would bring former City Administrator Justin Perry on board as a consultant if needed. The city would pay Perry $110 an hour

• Unanimously approved an agreement with Aplin Masonry of Telluride to restore the brick facade on the historic Columbus Building 740 Main St. State historic grant funds will cover the cost of the $207,000 contract.

• Voted 4-1 to officially retract the marketing services and Visitors’ Center operations request for proposals that was issued last summer. A contract was conditionally awarded to the OTO in December, but the city and OTO ultimately didn’t agree on terms and the interim contract expired March 31. Boyd was the lone councilor to vote against the retraction.

• Voted 3-2 to not appoint Glanc, the former city councilor and Visitors’ Center manager, to the city’s Community Economic Development Committee. Nelson, Wood and Councilor Peggy Lindsey opposed her appointment, while Boyd and Councilor Ethan Funk voted in favor of it.