Marquette discusses business and tourism issues

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By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Councilwoman Cindy Halvorson broached the subject of the city of Marquette restoring funding to the McGregor-Marquette Chamber of Commerce at the city’s Jan. 14 meeting, citing dissatisfaction with Marquette’s business and tourism efforts.

“I feel the Chamber is the best choice for Marquette,” Halvorson said. “We need to listen to what the taxpaying businesses want. We’re not voted in for what we want, but what they want.”

The Chamber office in McGregor is always open, said Halvorson, adding that it and Executive Director Carolyn Gallagher are a direct resource for businesses, tourists and others seeking information. A monthly newsletter informs people of upcoming events and business promotions. In addition, she referenced the Chamber’s distribution of 6,000 brochures to businesses, chambers and tourist centers throughout the tri-state area, as well as annual print and broadcast advertising both locally and out of the area. The Chamber also supports and advertises the Lazy River Beer and Wine Festival, held in Marquette in June, which Halvorson cited as the Chamber’s largest event. 

Mayor Norma Mason warned Halvorson that jumping back into the Chamber might not be in the city’s best interests. She cited a discussion from McGregor’s December council meeting where the council was asked to consider how the city can set expectations and accountability for the Chamber following complaints from business owners and art festival vendors.

“I’m told it would be very prudent in our case to save our discussion until theirs is concluded,” Mason said. “These are the types of issues we had before. Why jump into it when we can wait for things to get organized?”

“I’m not saying you don’t have to be a member,” Mason continued. “There were people in town without businesses who had questions. We have to consider the whole town.”

Marquette ceased funding the Chamber in May 2013 over concerns about how the money was being used.

“Until you’re a business owner, you don’t understand,” Halvorson noted. “We rely on tourism.”

Councilman John Ries admitted that the city pulling funding was rough.

“That was a kick in the head for everybody,” he said. “You don’t pull the rug out at June 1 [at the start of the tourism season].”

However, Ries noted all the outlets the city has to get its name out there, including the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre, Prairie du Chien Chamber of Commerce, Clayton County Development Group and the Mar-Mac Chamber.

“We have all of these tools, and if we don’t take advantage of them, then we’re foolish,” he said. “I think the Chamber should be one of the tools in our economic development plan.”

The problem, added Ries, is that the city has money set aside for tourism and economic development, but no plan for how it should be spent.

“I’m totally in the dark about where any of that money is going,” he said, suggesting  that the city forms a plan and budget, then goes from there.

City Manager Dean Hilgerson said, this year, Marquette has $65,000 in hotel/motel tax and expects $70,000 next year. Half of that is set aside for tourism and economic development purposes, but nothing specifically. Ries said it wouldn’t be a bad idea to earmark that money, making sure it’s used for a certain purpose when distributed.

Councilman Jason Winter said he agreed with Ries’ ideas, especially spreading the funding to various resources.

“It’s not to say we can’t take another look [at the Chamber]. but we’re not just looking to the Chamber,” he said. “We want to support everything we can as long as they’re accountable.”

One of the resources the city has is the Wetlands Centre, noted Hilgerson.

“It’s obvious the Wetlands Centre lends itself to tourism and economic development,” he said. “You have to give people a reason to come. Exposure in a magazine ad is one thing, but people have to come. People are becoming acquainted with Marquette through it.”

“The area is nature-driven,” explained councilwoman Rinda Ferguson. “People come here just for that, so we can’t capitalize on it enough.”

“With the river, Effigy Mounds and Pikes Peak, the Wetlands Centre fits right into that category,” added Mason.

In order to better promote the community and facilitate planned activities, the city suggested the council approve making Wetlands Centre Director Katrina Moyna a full-time employee. Last year, Moyna was a full-time employee, managing the Wetlands Centre and the city’s tourism and economic development, until an illness forced her to take a leave of absence in the spring. She returned to work in the fall, but only on a part-time basis.

Ries and Halvorson were hesitant to extend Moyna’s hours, fearful she will not remain busy enough in the winter months to warrant heating the Wetlands Centre full-time.

Hilgerson said the city made a commitment to the state and other donors to keep the Centre open year-round when funding was provided, but the number of hours was not specified.

Ries suggested tabling the topic and discussing it with the other economic development issues. He and Halvorson voted “no” for offering Moyna full-time status, while Winter and Ferguson voted “yes.” Councilman Galen McShane was absent, so no action could be taken. 

Later in the meeting, after Maiden Voyage owner Robert Vavra expressed interest in working with Moyna and the Wetlands Centre to develop packages for prospective tour buses, the issue was again broached. If Moyna was giving her time to that project, Mason suggested Moyna’s hours be increased. However, the vote remained unchanged, with the issue to be discussed again at a future meeting.

Winter expressed distress over pushing the topic down the road.

“No matter what, there’s going to be a stalemate,” he said, “but we need to keep moving forward. There’s a lot riding on everything now. If we don’t start making decisions now, we’re going to lose out on a lot.”

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