The Cortez City Council has approved a proposal for Mesa Verde Country Visitor Information Bureau to assume operations of the city’s Colorado Welcome Center.
The proposition sparked some controversy at the council meeting Tuesday night, with some Welcome Center employees and volunteers arguing against changing management from the city of Cortez to Mesa Verde Country.
But staff and councilors in favor of the transition said that the move would help consolidate resources and that the Welcome Center could benefit from the bureau’s expertise.
“It seems to me, with changes at the state level, this may be the ideal time to move forward on this, because we’re going to have to be re-educating people as far as things that are coming down from the state tourism office,” said Mayor Karen Sheek. “Tourism season is just right around the corner, so if we’re going to do this, it makes sense to do it now rather than to put it off.”
The final vote was 4-1, with Councilwoman Jill Carlson opposing the contract with the bureau. Councilmen Gary Noyes and Mike Lavey were absent.
Mesa Verde Country is a “quasi-governmental organization” that works to market the region to tourists and visitors from around the world, according to City Manager John Dougherty, who recommended the move. The bureau’s funding comes from both lodger tax and general fund dollars.
Currently, the bureau’s office is located within the Welcome Center, which is one of 10 official centers within Colorado.
Kelly Kirkpatrick, Mesa Verde Country’s executive director, has worked for several years out of the center, not only for the bureau but also for Cortez Retail Enhancement Association and the Chamber of Commerce, according to a staff report prepared by Peyton Heitzman, a management intern from Dougherty’s office.
“Kelly has many valuable connections throughout the state that will only improve the center’s access to knowledge and other resources,” Heitzman wrote in the report.
The city owns the Welcome Center building and will be charged with maintaining building operations, according to the report. Additionally, Jon Brooks, the city’s manager of marketing and special events, will continue to work out of the center, and CREA will still be renting office space out of the building.
The contract will fund Mesa Verde Country with a little over $30,000 per year from the general fund in order for the bureau to maintain necessary staffing levels at the center. But since the funding will be appropriated from the 2019 Welcome Center’s budget, the change will not incur any additional costs to the city, Heitzman wrote in the report.
Kirkpatrick herself spoke at the meeting, touting Mesa Verde Country’s experience in attracting visitors.
“Visitors want an information center in the community that they’re visiting,” she said. “They want a consistent experience from website to the front door.”
Some Welcome Center employees and volunteers, however, expressed some hesitancies regarding the change.
“I see we’re separate, I see Mesa Verde Country as a magazine or business that brings visitors to our area, and our Welcome Center and our volunteers and the staff as those that do all that they can to assist and be that friendly voice,” said Welcome Center volunteer Paulette Gasner.
She said that she was worried that Montezuma County would be “washed out,” and that Mesa Verde Country would just end up sending visitors to Durango.
A few speakers emphasized that the state tourism office is in the midst of a branding transition, in addition to concerns that bringing in new management would lead to another layer of confusion for volunteer training protocols.
“There is a lot going on, not just the transition of management,” said Sandra Crow, currently serving as manager of the Welcome Center. “I feel – me personally – I feel Kelly has a lot on her plate already. She has her hands on a lot of different projects and areas. It’s not a good time.”
However, Mark Drudge, executive director of CREA, said he felt the change would be positive and allow for greater collaboration between the entities housed at the Welcome Center.
“I think that it makes a lot of sense for the organization that is vested with the regional, the national, the international marketing of our area to be responsible for taking charge of the Welcome Center,” Drudge said.
The majority of the council agreed with Drudge’s perspective and expressed confusion with how the changing management would affect volunteer training.
“Don’t you really think it’s better if everybody starts out on the same foot, learning the training so that the place operates in the same way?” said Councilwoman Sue Betts.
In response to Gasner’s assertion that the change would send visitors away to Durango, Mayor Sheek noted that Kirkpatrick and Mesa Verde Country are both local.
The change will take effect May 1, although the city of Cortez will continue to maintain its contract with the Colorado Tourism Office through June 30. Starting July 1 and continuing through June 30, 2020, Mesa Verde Country will contract directly with the tourism office.