Durango City Council is considering replacing the Durango Area Tourism Office with a different vendor to market the town to tourists.
Councilor Chris Bettin suggested this week at a study session that the city consider seeking proposals for other vendors to do the job DATO does. His intention in suggesting the change in vendors, he said, is to further austerity measures taken by City Council in past months to balance a strapped budget.
The city has contracted with DATO for years, Bettin said, and it doesn’t know what alternatives there are or whether contracting with another marketing vendor would be cheaper or more effective. Bettin did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
But Frank Lockwood, executive director of DATO, said the move “feels like retaliation” for a disagreement he and the city had last month related to funding.
Lockwood, at a City Council meeting in late November, suggested city leaders were breaking local rules by transferring lodgers tax dollars out of the Durango tourism fund to pay for transit, events, administrative fees, transportation and expenses in the general fund. The tourism fund is expected to collect about $1.1 million in 2019. DATO receives $725,000 of that amount, and the remaining balance – $425,000 – is transfered to other city funds.
Lockwood argued that city rules prohibit transfers from the tourism fund without a City Council-approved resolution and “detailing the purpose and extent of such expenditures.” He cited the city code in making his argument.
City Attorney Dirk Nelson disagreed, saying the resolution to pass the budget in its entirety, a $92 million spending document that was passed earlier this month, is sufficient to meet code standards.
Assistant City Manager Amber Blake said Friday the city is not yet seeking proposals; rather, staff is exploring what opportunities a new marketing vendor may provide. The city has not done a study of the effectiveness of DATO, which manages public relations for consumer awareness, social media, broadcast, digital advertising and print advertising, she said.
“I think that in the current political and fiscal environment, it’s absolutely necessary for us as a local government, and the policymakers as the head of that, to look at all expenditures and make sure that we are doing everything that we can to guarantee the best, most efficient and effective use of public funds,” Blake said. “I think that we have a responsibility to do this, and that is the intention and hopefully that’s how it will be received.”
Mayor Sweetie Marbury, Mayor Pro-Tem Melissa Youssef, Councilor Dean Brookie and City Manager Ron LeBlanc entertained the idea of seeking a new marketing vendor, but Councilor Dick White said the potential move “leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”
More specifically, White said he is concerned about the public perception of looking for a new vendors in the wake of Lockwood’s arguments a few weeks ago. It could be seen as retaliation, he said.
“The arguments presented by my colleagues had to do with, ‘Are we getting the best bang for our buck,’” White said in an interview Thursday with The Durango Herald. “The timing is awkward to say the least. I believe I said (Tuesday) that the effort on the part of the city could be misconstrued by people in the community.”
Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce, said he agrees with White – the timing seems “coincidental,” he said. DATO does a good job, especially with social media, in targeting tourists from major metropolitan areas with marketing materials, he said. And DATO has an asset in its board of directors – all “local folks who eat, sleep and breathe the tourism industry,” Llewellyn said.
“That local institutional knowledge is so valuable,” he said.
Tim Walsworth, executive director of the Durango Business Improvement District, said DATO has been a partner in bringing people to the city. In past years, DATO has proved vital in bringing more tourists to the city, a boon for the local economy.
But it’s also important for the city to review vendors to make sure it is getting the best deal, Walsworth said.
“I think it’s important for any organization to always review their vendors. There’s nothing wrong with that,” Walsworth said. “I also think that DATO does an awesome job; they’re one of BID’s key partners. We value their work tremendously. They’re a huge part of Durango being successful and continuing to be successful.”