Sublette County cuts apron strings

The visitor center at 26 N. Tyler Ave., in Pinedale was built and is owned by Sublette County. The Sublette County Chamber of Commerce has a contract to

Visitor center subsidy will come to an end

PINEDALE – Sublette County Commissioners will provide the organization a home in the visitor center, but warned Sublette County Chamber of Commerce representatives that county subsidies to run it will stop.

Meanwhile, the town of Pinedale is debating taking over the chamber’s contract and moving its town hall to the facility and also running the visitor center.

Chamber representatives, Pinedale representatives and Pinedale Travel and Tourism Commission board members were called together during the Oct. 2 Sublette County Commissioners’ meeting and warned the chamber needs to figure out how to pay its own way.

The visitor center is owned by Sublette County. There is a 20-year agreement, with about 10 years remaining, that the Sublette County Chamber of Commerce will run the visitor center at 26 N. Tyler Ave. The chamber paid $10 for the 20-year lease. The county pays for maintenance on the building and some of the utility costs.

This year, the county funded the chamber at $28,422 for operating the visitor center. That was $10,000 less than the previous fiscal year and another $10,000 from the year before that. Commissioners warned at the meeting the subsidy will be cut $10,000 every year until it becomes zero.

Chamber Director Jennifer Zook estimated the chamber spends about $50,000 a year in utilities and staffing to run the visitor center. She added, about 20 hours a week of her time go toward running the visitor center.

The contract also allows the chamber to rent the upstairs offices and generate revenue of $1,500 a month.

The office upstairs gives the chamber another opportunity to have an additional business on the town’s main street, Zook said. The chamber’s main income comes from sponsorships and member dues,

“You will have a home, but your budget will decrease $10,000 annually until there is no more funding from the county,” Sublette County Commission Chairman Andy Nelson told the chamber representatives. “We’re not only providing the building but paying a substantial percentage of the operating costs.”

He called out Pinedale Mayor Matt Murdock, saying the town collects about $280,000 in revenue from the 4-percent lodging tax but only pays the chamber $10,000. Nelson added the town of Pinedale receives the most benefit from the visitor center.

Statutes dictate lodging-tax funds must be used for promoting “The Greater Pinedale Area.”

Murdock said the $10,000 is for promoting Pinedale, a service the chamber provides for the town. He said the town’s code specifies the travel and tourism funds can only be used to “put heads in beds – not maintenance funds.”

He added Casper nearly lost its lodging tax by spending lodging tax funds on a visitor center.

Pinedale Council member Tyler Swafford added, the issue is between the county and the chamber and it is not the place of the town of Pinedale to get in the middle.

Since Zook took over as chamber director about one year ago, she has restructured the Sublette Chamber of Commerce as a 501(c)3 corporation to enable the organization to receive grants.

She declined to comment during the meeting saying she would refer to her board.

Chamber board member Roy DeWitt said it would discuss the issue and determine the best path forward.

“Our agreement is with you and we’re not kicking you out,” Nelson said.

Nelson said the county could look at helping, with utilities, because the chamber has provided good service and is taking care of the building. He asked other entities and boards to consider helping with the budget and also cutting some of the operating costs.

Murdock said the town was hit with a budget crunch just like the county.

“You have to realize, I’m staring down the gun barrel looking at a $16-million water-filtration system,” Murdock said.

Murdock said there is interest by the town of Pinedale to have a town hall located on the main street and the town would be willing to run the visitor center and use office space for a town hall.

The town was forced to give up the town hall on Pine Street when asbestos was found inside and the town’s insurance company refused to insure the facility. Offices were moved to the town’s shop facility at 69 Pinedale S. Road, which is somewhat removed location with very little public parking.

Zook said following a chamber board meeting, the board discussed just handing the center back to the county, moving out and finding a new location.

“We want to make sure the visitor center stays operating beyond the term of any given mayor,” she said as the argument against doing so. n

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