The Baker County Chamber of Commerce’s Visitors Center in Baker City will reopen Friday for the first time in four months, and resume daily operation from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Chamber director Shelly Cutler said Wednesday that she’s “very excited” to reopen the building on the north side of Campbell Street near the Interstate 84 interchange.
Cutler said the Visitors Center, which closed at the end of March due to the coronavirus pandemic, has been receiving an average of about 80 phone calls every five days or so during the closure.
The Chamber has continued to stock visitors guides and pamphlets outside the center, and Cutler said she and office manager Diane Wroe have had to replenish the supply a couple of times per week.
Wroe also spent time at the center July 20-22, and she said a steady stream of visitors came by.
“We know people are still traveling, both from inside and outside Oregon,” Cutler said.
Baker County commissioners voted Wednesday to authorize the Chamber to reopen the Visitors Center, as recommended by the county’s Transient Lodging Tax Committee.
The Chamber receives about $76,000 per year from the 7% lodging tax, which is collected from guests at motels, bed-and-breakfasts and other lodging establishments, to operate the Visitors Center.
Cutler said the Visitors Center closed at the end of March due to uncertainty about effects of the pandemic, then in its early stages.
Another concern was plummeting lodging tax collections, the source of the money for the Visitors Center contract.
Timothy Bishop, the county’s contracted tourism marketing director, told commissioners Wednesday that although lodging tax revenue has dropped this year, the decrease hasn’t been as large as he expected.
Although numbers for the current quarter aren’t in, Bishop estimated that revenue is down 60% from 2019. The tax raised about $440,000 in the previous fiscal year, but the county budgeted just $300,000 for the fiscal year that started July 1.
The Chamber didn’t receive lodging taxes while the Visitors Center was closed, although Cutler said she and Wroe volunteered to retrieve phone messages and restock the information display outside the Visitors Center.
Payments will resume when the Center reopens, said Bill Harvey, chairman of the Baker County Board of Commissioners.
Cutler said she has talked with operators of visitors centers in other counties in the region, many of which reopened earlier this summer.
She said she’s glad to be able to meet with visitors and answer their specific questions.
As an example, she said some visitors might arrive intending to visit Hells Canyon, but they might not know that Halfway, with its restaurants and other businesses, is just a mile or so off Highway 86.
When the Visitors Center is open, she and Wroe can give travelers that specific information.
“I’m thrilled that we’re getting folks coming through and spending money in our local businesses,” Cutler said.