After 15 months of wrangling over Travel Medford's contract with the city, the Medford City Council Thursday ended up where it started — agreeing to negotiate a new five-year contract and forgo seeking other proposals.
"At this point, there is nothing to say Travel Medford isn't performing well," Mayor Gary Wheeler said.
Councilors did agree to work on changes to the contract over the next few months that would give the city a better handle on the performance of Travel Medford, which is part of the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County.
The city has contracted with the chamber for 42 years to fund Travel Medford. But some councilors voiced concern that the chamber's political agenda might interfere with Travel Medford's ability to promote events fairly. Over the past year, the chamber has worked to improve its communications with the city to help address concerns that were raised.
"The last 15 months have been a learning experience for a lot of us," said Eli Matthews, senior vice president of Travel Medford and a former councilor.
On a 5-3 vote, the council shot down a proposal by Councilor Kevin Stine to seek other proposals from companies that want to promote Medford.
"I don't see anything they do that can't be done by somebody else," Stine said.
He said he would prefer to go through a more transparent process of seeking proposals from other companies that are capable of promoting the area rather than just awarding the contract to Travel Medford.
"We could very well end up in the same situation, or we could take a different path," he said.
Councilor Mike Zarosinski said he'd spent enough time dealing with the drama over Travel Medford over the past year.
He said he was comfortable with a contract with an organization that has a strong interest in tourism.
"The chamber's goals line up with that contract," Zarosinski said.
The council agreed to form a small committee made up of councilors Clay Bearnson, Tim D'Alessandro and Kim Wallan, as well as city staff, to work on a new contract, which would be up for approval by the full council in August. Bearnson has been one of the most vocal councilors in opposition to the Travel Medford contract.
Wallan said she started out on the council this year with many questions about Travel Medford and once thought the city should seek other proposals.
"I don't see a good reason now," she said.
Wallan pointed to the many new hotels in Medford and the increases in the Transient Lodging Tax revenue over the years.
In 2016-17, the total tax collected is expected to be $2.12 million, compared to $1.19 million in 2011-12, with the dollars divided up between Parks and Recreation and Travel Medford.
Out of the dollars received from the tax, Travel Medford got $730,842 in 2013-14. In 2014-15, the amount increased to $797,483, and in 2015-16, it was $938,122. The 2016-17 budget is $1.06 million.
Brad Niva, executive director of Travel Southern Oregon, which represents five Southern Oregon counties including Jackson, said tourism dollars that have flowed into the area over the past year total $1 billion, of which $500 million was in Jackson County alone.
David Wright, chairman of the Medford chamber, said tourism is one of the core issues for his organization, and it's one of the main reasons for the chamber's ongoing support of Travel Medford.
"We care because it's in our mission to do it," he said.
He said Travel Medford receives less than half the lodging tax of Bend but has a similar occupancy rate at hotels.
Councilor Kay Brooks said she wondered how much of the increase in the lodging tax could be attributed to the efforts of Travel Medford or to the strong uptick in the economy since the recession.
Even though she voted against renewing the contract, Brooks said she would support creating a stronger contract.