Los Alamos County Developing Tourism Economy

Los Alamos County Planning Assistant Anita Barela, left, and her daughter, Leia Roach, take part in the public meeting regarding the County’s tourism strategic plan last year at UNM-LA. Photo by Kirsten Laskey/ladailypost.com 
 
 
By KIRSTEN LASKEY
Los Alamos Daily Post
kirsten@ladailypost.com
 
In January 2017, the Los Alamos County Council identified building the local tourism economy as a priority. Council accepted a tourism strategic plan during its Feb. 27 meeting; and as a result the wheels are now in motion toward achieving this goal.
 
Although tourists have visited Los Alamos County for a long time, the County hasn’t found a way to benefit from tourist economic development. Unlike other tourist destinations, hotels, restaurants and retail businesses weren’t locating in Los Alamos to benefit from the spending tourists typically do while on vacation.
 
With two newly installed national parks: the Valles Caldera National Preserve and the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and attendance climbing at Bandelier, the question for the County became how to grow tourism economic development so the community could improve and benefit, too. That’s where the idea of creating a tourism plan arose. Since there are so many entities involved in this effort, it makes sense to organize and prioritize activities.
 
Work on the strategic plan started last April when County Council formed and appointed members to the Tourism Work Group. This was followed by a public forum in September, a council work session in October and a second public forum in November.
 
Assistant to the County Manager Linda Matteson said it is exciting to have a plan in place.
 
“We’re excited to start the implementation,” she said.
 
To get started rolling out the plan, Council will be asked at the April 3 regular session to consider approving the charter for the Tourism Implementation Task Force. This task force will be made up of community members involved in tourism economic development as well as citizen representatives. Its purpose is to advise the County Council and guide the implementation of the tourism strategic plan and make sure the community is represented in implementation decisions.
 
Additionally, Matteson said request for proposals for services such as tourism marketing, visitor center operations and management are being drafted. Matteson said she is confident the County can make this endeavor a success.
 
“First of all we have the assets,” she said. “We have not only three national parks but outdoor recreation, historical and cultural assets.”
 
Plus, the plan has Council and community support, Matteson said.
 
County Councilor Susan O’Leary, who served as the chair on the Tourism Work Group, pointed out that strengthening the tourism economy benefits everyone. Local businesses will receive more customers, she explained, and more money will be spent in Los Alamos. Residents also will benefit.
 
“As has happened in other similar communities, increased traffic to our two downtown areas will result in more restaurants and shopping opportunities for people who live here in Los Alamos and White Rock,” O’Leary said.
 
The plan also should be effective because a number of stakeholders and the public had a hand in creating it.
 
“I worked for probably well over a year to get this plan funded by the County Council,” O’Leary said. “The important thing about this plan is that it incorporates public input and stakeholder input. Because of that, this plan truly reflects the interests of our community. Tourism economic development can have a very positive impact on our community but it should only expand in ways that are supported by the majority of the people who live and work here. I’m so grateful to the members of the Tourism Work Group and to Linda Matteson for the considerable time and guidance they gave to this effort.”
 
Many who served on the work group agree.
 
“I think it’s great for our community to recognize that it needs to not be insular. We have history, science and beauty to share with the world,” said Los Alamos Historical Society Executive Director Heather McClenahan. “To have plans and policies in place to promote this will just be a benefit to everyone in the community.”
 
She added, “I think there’s a realization that we’re lab dependent … but there are other things we can do. Improving tourism will improve the economy as a whole with dining and retail opportunities.”
 
McClenahan further pointed out that there is uncertainty about whether the laboratory’s contract will go to a for-profit or non-profit organization. This will greatly influence the amount of gross receipt tax revenue the County receives.
 
If the contract goes to a non-profit, “We are really going to look at tourism to increase the local tax base,” she said.
 
Pajarito Environmental Education Center Executive Director Katherine Bruell also sees tourism as a way to generate tax revenue for the County and highlight its best features.
 
“Our community really is a beautiful, undiscovered jewel in New Mexico. We don’t have much room to expand with other industries that might bolster our tax base. We’re not going to get new manufacturing plants or industries,” Bruell said. “Tourism can help our community diversify while still preserving and protecting all the things we love about our town. For example, the tourism plan has a lot to say about protecting our trails. Of course we hope that the community values protecting our trails for their own sake, but if trails are also seen as a tourism asset, there’s even more reason to protect them.”
 
Besides revenue, the plan proves to visitors that they are welcomed in the community, said Georgia Strickfaden, owner of Atomic City Tours.
 
“The major benefit is that Los Alamos County now intentionally includes the fact that we have visitors, a lot of them, in decision making processes in all phases of our living together as a community, i.e. our County governance,” Strickfaden said. “Visitor services (tourism) benefit residents because what is done for visitors we residents can benefit from, too. Shouldn’t we treat our visitors cordially by having goods and services they need? Oh yeah, and we can enjoy those things, too. We can intentionally harness tourism to our economic benefit.”
 
A number of businesses have already figured out what they can do to serve the visitors who are already here, Strickfaden said.
 
“It really helps when the local government gets on board, too, which is why having the tourism strategic plan is important,” she said. “I think it says, ‘Welcome, we’re glad you’re here. We have a lot to share and recognize it’s hard to find anything, so we’ll make a user and business friendly sign code, make the place presentable, and protect our natural environment. We’ll all enjoy this place together!’”
 
Tourism Work Group member Micheline Devaurs said the plan’s content and the way it was developed are what will make the document effective.
 
“A plan developed with the contractual expertise of Design Workshop working closely with the Tourism Work Group, and approved by the County Council, is an important document,” she said. “A plan is important to know how to move forward. This plan also has a detailed implementation plan to direct how to move forward and make it real. This document provides a good framework to move forward.”
 
Devaurs added, “The document strikes a balance—not too descriptive, enough of a framework to guide implementation, and concrete enough for both the Tourism Work Group’s and Council’s approval.  It provides direction to the County and partners when making decisions relating to tourism.”
 
The tourism strategic plan has already proven to be a valuable resource. Pueblo  Canyon Inn Owner Elizabeth Allen said, “As the owner of Pueblo Canyon Inn, it would appear obvious that we would benefit from tourism.  However, in being part of this planning process and working on the strategic plan, I realized what gaps in our community were not being met, and adapted our inn to assist business travelers. The strategic plan helps small businesses work smarter and to provide better services. As a result, all of our guests, whether they are visiting the national lab, visiting national parks or moving here permanently benefit.”

About the Tourism Strategic Plan

 
The Tourism Strategic Plan contains several focus areas:
  • Create and market an inviting community;
  • Increase the capture of visitor dollars;
  • Enrich our attractions and downtowns and celebrate the natural beauty; and
  • Operate with intentional leadership, public and private investment and partnerships
 
The plan also includes several strategies on how to successfully reach these different focus areas:
  • Focus on marketing science, history and outdoor recreation;
  • Improve web and social media presence;
  • Enhance regional marketing efforts; and
  • Coordinate local marketing efforts.
 
To make a good first impression and make Los Alamos visitor-friendly:
  • Improve visitor centers and Fuller Lodge;
  • Enhance the County’s role as a gateway to three national parks; and
  • Enhance all mobility options.
 
To improve lodging and hospitality infrastructure, products and services:
  • Increase lodging options; and
  • Improve hospitality by providing industry training.
 
To encourage people to plan overnight or multi-day stays in Los Alamos:
  • Provide support for event marketing and hosting;
  • Offer events that promote science and Los Alamos National Laboratory;
  • Provide outdoor recreation events;
  • Offer history and cultural events; and
  • Create facilities that serve the community and encourage overnight stays.
 
To enhance Los Alamos’ offerings to visitors and residents:
  • To invest in capital improvements that benefit both residents and visitors;
  • Expand recreational offerings;
  • Make downtown areas in Los Alamos and White Rock aesthetically pleasing and welcoming to visitors;
  • Improve commercial areas’ appearances;
  • Maximize MainStreet and Creative District opportunities; and
  • Expand eating and shopping areas.
 
To manage potential impacts of tourism to retain the community’s quality of life:
  • Proactively develop plans to mitigate impacts.
 
To cultivate strategic partnerships to ensure operational success:
  • Invest time and funding in relationships at the local level; and
  • Collaborate with regional and national organizations.
 
To efficiently implement tourism efforts:
  • Create a County Tourism Department and increase staffing;
  • Redirect funding sources and seek grants;
  • Support centralized visitor contact; and
  • Modify or create policies and governing agencies.
 
Finally, to secure and optimize public and private funding based on strategic criteria:
  • Tie budgets to goals that can be measured; and
  • Grow funding from a variety of sources.
 
Many members of the group commended Susan OLeary’s and Linda Matteson’s efforts and contributions to the plan and to the group.
 
Members of the Tourism Work Group: 
  • Susan O’Leary, Chair
  • Elizabeth Allen
  • Micheline Devaurs
  • Dennis Erickson
  • Dave Fox
  • Suzette Fox
  • Phil Gursky
  • Kristin Henderson
  • Linda Hull
  • David Jolly
  • Philip Kunsberg 
  • Craig Martin
  • Brad Nyenhuis
  • Irene Powell
  • Andrea D. Romero
  • Georgia Strickfaden
  • Laura Tietjen
  • Blake Wood
  • Susan Brockway-Hahn (Tom Long)    
  • Katie Bruell
  • Heather McClenahan
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