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Economic rebound plans include tourism strategy for Placer County, Auburn

Framing the future: New Placer County tourism report focuses in on new image for Gold Country, Auburn
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Hernan Garcia may not know it but he’s the face of Auburn’s tourism future. The Cali, Colombia resident is visiting California for the first time. His travels have taken him to San Francisco, Santa Cruz and along Highway 101 on the Pacific Coast. “It was beautiful, beautiful, beautiful,” Garcia said, exulting in the memory. On Friday, Garcia’s visit to California brought him to Old Town Auburn, attracted by its small town charm, friendliness and homey eateries. “You get to know the American people better,” Garcia said, as he fixed his camera on another image to photograph. “I love the little towns.” A new $57,000 study is providing tourism talking points for Auburn’s community leaders who want to attract and hold onto more Hernan Garcias. The 51-page report by Oregon-based Dean Runyan Associates estimates tourism-related spending in Placer County increased in 2008 to $787 million from $772 million the year before, while directly employing 9,460 people. The mid-Placer County area, which includes Auburn, accounted for $194 million of that total – up 9.4 percent from 2007’s $189 million. The Runyan report detailed the pluses of the so-called Gold Country area Auburn is part of. They include the region’s rich history – described as “a defining characteristic” – and outdoor recreation opportunities that can provide a “marketing hook” to distinguish the area from other Sierra-Nevada foothill regions. The report also identifies some challenges, most notably dealing with a “diluted image” because there is no over-riding recreational choice. “Within Gold Country, there is no predominant activity or attraction that defines the region,” the report says. The report also says the Placer County Visitor Bureau is unable to provide a strong regional marketing presence because it’s underfunded. The bureau’s California Welcome Center on Lincoln Way at the Foresthill Exit area is located in a relatively unattractive building, situated in a low visibility location and hard to find, the report says. Runyan recommends that more emphasis could be put into the wide array of outdoor recreation activities and the supporting mild climate, terrain and access from large regional markets. Jan Decker, CEO of the visitors bureau, said he agreed with a lot of what the report said and was appreciative of the scope of the study, which included in-depth interviews with 25 leaders in the tourism industry. “They interviewed the appropriate people and did paint the picture,” Decker said. “We need to look at our area as a region – it can’t be about one particular area.” Other communities that are part of the Gold Country include Meadow Vista, Colfax, Gold Run, Foresthill and Newcastle. The bureau and the California Welcome Center it manages has a budget of $245,000 and with bed taxes likely lowered next year because of fewer stays at local motels, that number could drop further, Decker said. “I have to admit we’re not in the best location and are actively looking for a new home,” Decker said. “The current lease is like an open wound. It’s bleeding us out and rent keeps going out. We can’t afford to stay here.” One suggestion in the report is to look at more funding for the bureau as it works to coordinate efforts of the Gold Country’s communities and groups into a cohesive package for travelers to focus on. One source of income could be an increase in the current 8 percent transient occupancy tax. David Snyder, county economic development director, said there has been some discussion on the tax but a bigger focus now is bringing additional hotel accommodation into the area. That includes two hotels – a Marriott Inn in Bowman and a Hampton Inn in Auburn that have already been approved but have yet to break ground because of tight economic conditions. Top 10 Placer County attractions and events* 1. Strawberry Festival, Roseville, 60,000 attendees 2. Gold Country Fair, Auburn, 45,000-50,000 3. Bayside Church’s Thrive Conference, Roseville, 35,000-42,000 4. Mountain Mandarin Festival, Auburn, 40,000 5. Placer County Fair, Roseville, 40,000 6. Roseville’s Denio’s Market and Auction, Roseville, 10,000-30,000 each weekend 7. Snowfest Winter Festival, Tahoe, 25,000-30,000 8. Festival of Lights Parade, Auburn, 13,000-15,000 9. Eggplant Festival, Loomis, 11,000-14,000 10. NASCAR Camping World Series, Roseville, 9000 Source: Dean Runyan Associates The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com.