Tourism task force looks first at visitors center issue

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By Bennett Horne

Earlier this year, the Los Alamos County Council established a Tourism Implementation Task Force and charged it with developing a strategic plan for improving tourism in the county, a plan that would include short- and long-term options.

One of the facets of the short-term option was for the task force to evaluate the possibility of relocating the Los Alamos Visitors Center from its location at 109 Central Park Square.

The center has operated at that location under a lease that expires in December. It is using about one-third of the 3,000 square foot space, sharing the space with the Los Alamos Commerce and Development Corporation, which is moving into another facility.

“There are offices and a conference room that the LACDC uses,” said Linda Matteson, who is the assistant to County Manager Harry Burgess and the county’s task force liaison. “They’re able to locate all of their staff to their small business center, which is a different facility near Origami, so they are no longer wanting to have that co-location, that sharing of space. Our assumption is that if we want to stay in that space our cost would increase to take over that other space that we don’t need.”

During the meetings since its inception the task force has been considering many locations and has generated a “wish list” of 29 possible locations. Some locations on the list are vacant and some are occupied while others are only parcels of land.

“It’s just a list of places we felt met, or could meet, several criteria for a visitors center,” Matteson said.

But over the course of its previous two meetings, the group began sharpening its focus on the assignment and came up with a preliminary recommendation that doesn’t include any new location.

The task force instead wants to focus more on the short-term aspects and plans to recommend to the council that a subcommittee be formed to narrow the long list of possible new locations down to three or four.

County staff would then look into the financial details of moving the center to each of those locations and the task force would then use those financials, as well as other rubrics, to go back to the council with a final recommendation.

David Jolly, who was appointed chair of the task force during its July meeting, said the center needs to be up and running before the next tourism season.

“We need to form a subcommittee to go through the list and to make sure the center is open by March,” he said. “We’re losing the lease in December and tourism season is in the spring, in April and May, so we need to be ready to go by March.”

The task force has been discussing not only the best locations for a visitors center, but also characteristics of what makes a good visitors center.

“Ideally what would happen for anything that this group would do is that they would need to take some kind of action to make a recommendation to council,” said Matteson. “And then the task force, and myself as a staff member, to support that would put it on a council agenda at some future date to say, ‘OK, council, here’s the recommendation from the task force you assigned.’ So it’s kind of a two-step process.”

The task force has found itself between a rock and a hard spot in that it doesn’t know the amount of money it has at its disposal with which to build a new facility or renovate an old one. That would go a long way in determining which locations would be viable.

“I think it is a little like the chicken and egg,” said task force member Katy Bruell, who is the executive director of the Pajarito Environmental Education Center. “I think staff should find out what’s available and how much it’s going to cost and then we can analyze those places. I think our criteria and rubric are valuable in the long term, but I think between now and whatever is long term a lot may be changing.”

In the task force’s last meeting, the majority of the members agreed that the proper course of action is to focus on the short-term now and take care of the long-term later.

“I think we can punt on the long-term decision right now and really focus on the short-term,” said member Lauren McDaniel, who is the director of Los Alamos MainStreet. “There are too many unanswered questions right now for this group in terms of what we want in the ultimate visitors center and we just don’t have enough information ourselves to make that decision.”

Jolly is in the process of drafting a letter to the council that would include the recommendations of the task force.

He said a subcommittee could quickly whittle the list of potential locations down to three or four before turning the list over to council staff.

“If we use that criteria then right off the bat we eliminate 90 percent of our list, get it down to three or four and then turn that list over to staff to actually negotiate for the best one they can get,” he said.