Photo Illustration by KEIZERTIMES/Andrew Jackson

By JASON COX
Of the Keizertimes

Anywhere between $30,000 and $500,000 could be used to build a visitors center near Interstate 5 in Keizer.

The move comes as some city leaders see a potential economic boost in not only recruiting events like the recently-concluded Good Vibrations festival, but as an everyday place to stay where travelers can easily drive to nearby destinations.

But can Keizer be a viable tourist hotspot? And is building a visitors center a wise use of public dollars?

The questions come as one process reaches its conclusion and another is just beginning. A city-sponsored task force recommended investing in a festival site near Interstate 5, and the Keizer Urban Renewal Agency will soon decide whether – and how much – urban renewal money should fund a visitors center, also near the interstate.

A quick tour of current offerings offer few indicators that Keizer has the tourist-oriented business community or infrastructure to handle a massive influx of visitors. We have our fair share of bars, but the number of family-friendly establishments serving food that doesn’t come in a bag fall short of the double-digit mark. We’ve got a lake, but it’s private: Signs threaten arrest if you fish there. Our hotel is well-reviewed, but there’s only one. And the city’s Events and Festivals Task Force learned local ordinances prohibit any sort of entertainment in local parks without a permit.

Photo Illustration by KEIZERTIMES/Andrew Jackson

But many leaders, including Mayor Lore Christopher, say Keizer is in a prime location to capitalize on Willamette Valley tourism. Keizer is on one of several routes to the Oregon coast via Highway 22, and is well within day trip range for vineyard tours, skiing, hiking, fishing or soaking in the unique cultures of Portland and Eugene.

The Keizer Iris Festival has seen an attendance spike, and the community just played host to the Good Vibrations motorcycle festival. Later this year Keizer will for the first time host the Festival of Lights parade, which was until its 2010 cancellation a Salem holiday tradition.

The Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, the city’s historically successful short-season Single-A baseball team, are seeing an attendance surge following the departure of the Portland Beavers, a Triple-A minor league team that left to make way for Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers. The city’s community center, completed in 2009, hosts its fair share of trade shows and conventions. While not without infrastructure shortcomings, Keizer Rapids Park boasts a popular amphitheater and dog park. By this time next year a boat ramp could be close to completion.

Two of Oregon’s most-visited destinations – Spirit Mountain Casino and Woodburn Company Stores – are less than an hour away.

And there’s the freeway that provides a relatively traffic-free path to the city and gives the exposure some think our community is poised to capitalize upon.

“We’re a destination – they just don’t know it yet,” Christopher told the July luncheon of the Keizer Chamber of Commerce. The chamber, which also provides visitor services to the city, is the leading candidate to run a tourism center, but the mayor has said other groups could have a shot at the task. The chamber is already planning a move to Keizer Station in an already-built space; that could become their permanent home, or they might build a joint-facility with Salem-Keizer Transit. The area’s bus operators are planning a transit hub at Keizer Station.

“We feel like the Exit 260 interchange is a viable place to offer visitor services,” said Christine Dieker, executive director of the Keizer Chamber of Commerce.

Capitalizing on a city-owned five-acre site near the freeway and Volcanoes Stadium topped the Events and Festivals Task Force’s list of recommendations.

“Because of parking and access issues it may not be a good stand-alone, but the location and visibility from Interstate 5 is unparalleled,” said City Councilor Cathy Clark, who chaired the task force. “We want to see if we can at least use that land for more than we’re using it for now, which is nothing.”

A Keizer-style welcoming

To remain in leased space at Keizer Station, some $30,000 to $40,000 in urban renewal dollars could help build out amenities like public restrooms and kiosks advertising area attractions, Dieker said. City leaders acknowledge this number would likely multiply several times over if such a facility was built new, combined with the planned bus station.

The urban renewal amendment proposed for a vote August 1 would allow spending up to $500,000 on the visitors center.

The chamber also is planning a private capital campaign to finance the facility; the group will have to make do without some $11,000 in hotel-motel taxes, which the Keizer City Council opted to keep in order to avoid further general fund cuts.

A key argument for Keizer promoting itself: No one else seems to be doing it. Dieker said Portland-oriented tourism sites don’t even mention Highway 22 as a beach route, instead steering visitors northwest on Highway 26 to Cannon Beach or through Newberg to Lincoln City, bypassing the Salem-Keizer area altogether.

“We hope to bring a little more presence to the area,” Dieker said.

Erick Peterson, a chamber board member, envisions such a facility as hosting everything from pamphlets to athletic tournament signups, wine tastings and more.

“We plan to design this facility … so you can make the most of it,” Peterson told chamber members at the organization’s July luncheon.

Getting the word out

The proposed visitors center has been likened to a funnel; i.e. visitors traveling the Interstate 5 corridor could spot the sign, drop in and see what else Keizer and the surrounding area has to offer.

City Manager Chris Eppley told the Keizertimes he believes the idea has potential.

“Anything the community can do to promote itself,” Eppley said. “I think it is clearly sort of a quintessential urban renewal type project for the things urban renewal was meant to do, which is position the community in such a way to promote itself and improve.”

Dan Cormany, a visiting professor at Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, said it wasn’t at all unusual for a city Keizer’s size to promote itself as a destination.

“There are convention and visitors bureaus serving areas of only 10,000 or 15,000,” Cormany said.

But recognizing much of vacation planning happens online, Clark said having a viable and consistent online community calendar was a crucial piece of the puzzle.

The goal is that “no events go unnoticed,” Clark said, “We’ve got to capitalize on what we have… We already have events and visitors coming here; we already have assets. What are we doing with what we have?”

Clark sees the calendar as a “two-way communication tool” for both the public to see what’s coming up, and for businesses to market to upcoming events. The Keizer Chamber of Commerce has recently introduced a community calendar on its Keizerchamber.com website.

Will it work?

One aspect not yet mentioned is how our leaders and the public can track return on public investment.

Cormany said hotel reports would be the most reliable indicator – both tax receipts and the actual number of room nights booked.

“Usually the (destination marketing organization) has a targeted number of room nights they’re trying to be responsible for,” Cormany said. “Their success rate would be based in part on how many room nights they generate that weren’t otherwise generated.

“Particularly for leisure tourists, it’s difficult otherwise to get a read on whether, for example, restaurant or retail business is from tourists or from locals,” Cormany added. “The definition of a tourist is someone who spends a night away from home; the hotel reports give us the best indication.”

When it comes to festivals and other events, Cormany said computerized models exist to show tourism promoters how much visitors spent on food and drink, ticket sales and more.

“You’re also getting into determining how much money stays in the community and how much goes out with the sponsor of the event or the vendors of the event,” Cormany said.

He said the “close to” has worked elsewhere, citing Lancaster, California’s tourism efforts. That Mojave Desert city, while significantly bigger than Keizer at more than 156,000 residents, has taken a similar angle. It’s about 80 minutes north of Los Angeles.

Cormany described two possible paths to success with the “close to” strategy: The destination must be uniquely situated in close proximity to other attractions or be a low-price leader among its competitors. Unique transportation options like trains can be a draw, he added.

And while hotels and restaurants offering breakfast and dinner – particularly those with long hours – can see more customers using this strategy, retail stores don’t generally see much impact, Cormany said.

Potential pitfalls include the possibility a potential visitor would choose to focus on one area; say, staying in the mountains or at the beach as opposed to driving to both, he said. Another is that it can be hard to recruit return visitors, as they may find they like one of the nearby destinations so appealing they stay there next time instead.

“The remedy for this is to use the exposure they have to your city to enchant and appeal to them on your own terms, so they view your city as a ‘hidden discovery’ to which they want to return to specifically,” he said.

Marketing starts at home

Tourism boosters will have to figure out how to market one more destination in a stubbornly sluggish economy. And if Keizertimes Facebook fans’ comments are any indication, the hometown crowd still needs convincing.

“Whether we like it or not, Keizer is what it will always be – a bedroom community to Salem,” said Tamra Burleson. “Let’s focus on making that bedroom a convenient place of rest, relaxation and renewal for those of us that live here.”

Shelly King described Keizer as a “gateway.”

“It’s like my relative’s house on the way to Disneyland, with the comfy living room and wonderful hospitality,” she said.

Dennis Koho, a former mayor and chamber president who owns a law firm on River Road, is skeptical.

“It is a good place to live, and we enjoy living in a city that is so close to many tourism destinations,” Koho said. “(But) how many people do you know have said, ‘I think we’ll vacation in Long Beach (Calif.) this year because it is just an hour or two from Disneyland? People simply don’t do that.”