Gehrke: Moab has a tourism problem. Here’s a solution.

Robert Gehrke

On busy weekends — like during the annual Jeep Safari earlier this month — the population of Moab more than quadruples, creating congestion and chaos in the town.

Even on the standard afternoon during peak tourist season, the main street through town is as congested as nearly any road along the Wasatch Front and a huge line queues up waiting to get into the splendor of Arches National Park.

Moab certainly has been a victim of its own magnificence. It has also been a victim of decades of poor planning. Maybe it was a lack of vision or maybe city leaders thought, “If you don’t build it they won’t come.”

But that’s how you end up with a town with only one real thoroughfare, despite warnings they needed a secondary corridor. It’s how you get a tourist destination that didn’t just fail to consider affordable housing for the thousands of seasonal employees that make the economy tick, but has been openly hostile to it. It’s why we have a town without the sewer and utilities to cope with the surge of visitors.

And, now, it’s why city officials have inherited a crisis.

My colleague Brian Maffly reported last week on how Moab and Grand County officials want to take their foot off the tourism gas a little, cut back on the marketing campaigns that attract more tourists than they know what to do with and spend a little more catching up on those essential services.

But state law limits their ability to do that.

Grand County collects about $5.1 million a year in what are called transient room taxes — a 4.25% tax that counties can assess on hotel rooms, designed to make sure communities can afford the services that visitors enjoy.

Under the law, at least 47% of the money collected has to be used on tourism promotion, things like advertising or running a visitors bureau — and some Moab city officials and business owners want the flexibility to use that money to deal with the onslaught of tourists they already have before they entice more.

It’s not an unreasonable desire, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

Grand County, like other comparably sized counties in the state, has considerable latitude in how it uses most of the money. Of the $5.1 million collected in Grand County, $2.7 million can be spent on things like trash collection, ambulance services, law enforcement, search and rescue, museums, exhibit halls and even sports fields and arenas.

Last year, the Legislature added road maintenance to the allowable uses for the room tax funds.

Moab, in particular, has other revenue sources it can use for projects. On top of the normal sales tax, and the hospitality tax and the transient room tax, Moab charges a 1.6% resort communities tax, meaning it charges the highest tax rate of any community in the state.

There’s nothing that says the money needs to be spent on tourism promotion right now. It could be stashed in a bank account and saved for when (or if) the torrent of tourists slows. Or use the money to urge tourists to visit some of the other gems in the area. The point is, there is wiggle room for places like Grand County and Moab.

But perhaps there could be more.

“I acknowledge that there are problems, acute problems in Moab,” said Vicki Varela, director of the Utah Office of Tourism, which has aggressively marketed Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks, drawing visitors to gateway communities like Moab and Springdale. “I acknowledge we have some responsibility for the problems. And if we acknowledge that, we have to be willing to change some of the things we do to fix that problem.”

Varela has been in talks with Moab and Grand County officials to try to find solutions. So has Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, who represents Moab and most of the southeastern portion of the state. But there also needs to be a balance.

“You’ve got half the people in [Moab] who don’t want anybody else there,” said Hinkins, “then you’ve got the guy in the trinket shop, if people don’t come buy things they don’t eat.”

Guardrails on how the money is spent also need to remain in place. Otherwise, it’s easy to envision a scenario where counties just divert all the money into projects unrelated to tourism.

Hinkins puts it this way: “You stop advertising, then people stop coming and they want to advertise again, then they say, ‘You can’t do that, we depend on that for our sewer lines.’”

Moab is also in a relatively unique situation. So it gets tricky to rewrite a law that will have to apply statewide.

However, there is a model that could solve this problem. Right now, mining, oil and gas companies pay community impact fees and a board decides how to spend that money.

The board, as we have seen, is far from perfect. But a similar board representing the diverse tourism interests — hoteliers, business owners, county government, state tourism officials and recreation interests — could approve using the room tax money for individual projects that fall outside the scope of the current law.

Such a model could offer the flexibility places like Moab want while preserving the overarching mission of strengthening Utah’s $8.5 billion-a-year tourism industry.