25 Jun, Saturday
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Tooele County: Utah’s second-largest county seeks to draw more tourists and recreationists

Looking for a staycation destination? Try Tooele County: beautiful vistas, unique entertainment, and fantastic hunting and fishing, all a short drive away from the Salt Lake Valley.

At least, that’s the message Tooele County officials are hoping to spread as they look to change their rural home’s reputation from being a swath of desert on the way to somewhere else to becoming a destination in its own right.

“We want to diversify our local economy, and we think tourism is a good way to do that,” says Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne. “We realized we need to be more professional about this than we—a rural county turning suburban—have ever done before.”

Allocating resources

The county has been making a concerted effort over the last few years to form a brand identity for the area. John Cluff, chairman of Tooele County Tourism Tax Advisory Board, says the more clearly defined direction has meant a shift in the way things have been done for a long time. The all-volunteer board reviews applications for and awards grant money from collected tourism taxes to organizations and events that would encourage more tourism to the county—funds that can only be used for such purposes.

Cluff says the county’s tighter definition of what things are actually likely to bring in more tourists has altered what projects get funded.

“What we found was [the commission was] spending money on projects that were in the gray area of what it was legal to spend tax dollars on,” he says. Of the 41 applications totaling $1.2 million this year, the board recommended—and the commission granted—30 projects for the more than $300,000 in funding. “We ended up with a list of grant applications that we felt like were legal and to some extent advanced tourism,” he says. The advisory board made those recommendations, and “the commission went along with them. [The commission] has really started listening to us.”

But in a small community, it can be tough to be stringent without stepping on neighbors’ toes.

“We have some organizations that have been receiving some money every year that are not very happy with us not awarding to them,” Cluff says. Among them was a community requesting funds to build new restrooms in their city park, and a private company that wanted a grant to build infrastructure that could attract tourists. In the case of the latter, he says, the board offered support with out-of-county advertising, but couldn’t justify the project itself.

Some organizations had promising projects, but lacked the data to show if tourists did come, or how many. Cluff says the board is now asking those groups to bring the data they already have the capacity to collect to demonstrate their impact.

“We know that those events have people from outside the county, but they never did anything to keep track of outside county residents, and we’ve got them now collecting the data,” he says. He adds that the data collection should be easy, because the organizations can track zip codes from credit and debit card transactions.

Two community leaders were upset enough at the way funds were being divvied that they approached Rep. Doug Sagers (R-Tooele) about amending the law to require that city leaders from the largest and second-largest cities in a community sit on the tourism board. In 2016, Sagers sponsored HB 212 to do just that. It died after a second reading in the House.

With the large number of community organizers that work on a volunteer basis, Cluff says it can be uncomfortable to go to the grocery store after denying some of the grants.

“I think we’re going in the right direction and we’re trying to do what’s right for the residents of the county, and we feel really bad because … so many of these organizations are staffed by volunteers just like we are,” he says. “They go to all this work to put this event together and they take a lot of their personal time to write up the grant application, and then we don’t give them any money—and then they live right next to us, so we have to deal with that. It’s quite a challenge to be on the board and maintain your local friends.”

Defining a vision

Tooele County hasn’t had more than “a throw in the pond” before in terms of marketing itself to tourists, Milne says. In the past, he says, the organizations that did draw tourists, or were hoping to attract them, did so on an individual basis—even the local museums that collectively struggle with funding, support and volunteer manpower.

“Anyone who was operating in tourism was probably operating on their own, without a concerted effort. There was no cooperative branding; there was no cooperative vision of what tourism was. … There was no overarching symbolism of what Tooele County had to offer tourists,” Milne says. “I don’t think there was any coordination with them at all, rather than getting on the same page to co-market, everyone was just clamoring for their little piece of the market. That’s the way Tooele County, not as a government institution, but as a locale, seemed to have been marketing itself.”

Tightening the requirements for tourism grants was a good start, but Milne says the commissioners quickly realized they were out of their depth. Cluff, too, will be the first to say that no matter the virtues of the board, they’re keenly aware of their lack of professional experience when it comes to branding and attracting tourists. About a year ago, the county put out a request for a proposal for marketing or consultation to jump-start its tourism industry, and awarded the contract to Salt Lake-based State Street Partners.

Because of the lack of previous branding or marketing, the consultants could start fresh. And there’s plenty to work with, says Mike Deaver, principle with State Street Partners.

“Some of the strengths of the county have to do with both manmade and natural assets, and they’re things that those of us in the state probably take for granted. Some of the most photographed scenes in the state and the country and the world are the Salt Flats, in the heart of Tooele County. … There’s also great ATV trails, hiking trails, fishing spots, some great gaming and hunting in Tooele County. There are also some great manmade attractions like Deseret Peak and [Utah] Motorsports [Campus],” he says. “It’s got really rich heritage and culture as far as outdoor recreation, sports, scenic and historic stops, both Western history and Mormon history—just most people don’t think of Tooele County as a destination or a place to go to, and that’s what we hope to change.”

One of the first tasks, Deaver says, was to find out just what the perception of Tooele County was—both outside and in. Despite concerns from residents that outsiders would fixate on the less-savory parts of their history, such as EnergySolutions having a low-level nuclear waste dispensary within its borders, the biggest concern out-of-county respondents had to the group’s surveys was distance and travel time. And that’s great news for Tooele County, Deaver says, because the perception is far greater than the reality.

“What we find is people think it’s a long way to Tooele County, and it’s not—I can get to Tooele County faster from downtown than I can to Daybreak, and I know it’s faster than I can get to Bountiful in rush hour,” he says. “It’s helping the locals also realize it’s a great destination with great assets that’s something to promote and be a tourist ambassador on behalf of the county. It’s a beautiful valley. There’s the Country Fanfest and I don’t think there’s a better venue—cool summer air, mountain views. … If there are obstacles, it’s the perception of distance and internally helping people realize what they should be proud about with some of the things in the county.”

With the help of Deaver’s group, Tooele County recently applied for, and was awarded, three grants from the Utah Office of Tourism to help fund a tourism-specific website and to develop and advertise the Ford Performance Racing School at the Utah Motorsports Campus and the Country Fanfest, a massive outdoor country music festival.

Deaver and the commission are also working together to find and use data to guide their future moves. Milne says while the branding effort is expected to take several years to come into its own, these small benchmarks—the more selective awarding of grants, the use of the surveys and other data—are encouraging signs of what’s to come.

“This is a multi-year-long project, and we’re really satisfied with how it’s going so far,” he says. “There’s been some immediate effects already, but we’re really excited to see what the creative brand will be, and to see that come to fruition.”