The Roseburg Visitor Center is more than 20 years old — and it shows.
An outside display is torn, a second one is peeling paint and there are stains on the building. Inside, two video monitors sit idle, a public computer has no keyboard and an interactive map showing area attractions is missing buttons.
Even the information that is provided is outdated. A display shows six wineries in the county, even though there are now more than 30. Displays list Roseburg Area Chamber of Commerce activities and accomplishments from 2015; another shows chamber goals for 2016.
These and other signs of neglect are what prompted the City of Roseburg to cancel its contract with the chamber to run the center after 20 years. The city recently awarded a new three-year contract, worth nearly $1.5 million, to Anvil Northwest, a Roseburg-based marketing firm.
As the relationship between the chamber and city officials has frayed, there has been finger-pointing on both sides, with charges of unprofessionalism and downright rudeness being leveled. For now, the sides have entered into a sort of trial separation, with the visitor center basically shut down as city officials look for a new location to house it.
“It almost feels like we’re getting kicked out of our own building,” said Alan Pike, chamber board chairman and manager at the Hampton Inn in Roseburg.
The tit-for-tat may seem like a schoolyard spat, but the fallout could be consequential. Thousands of visitors pump millions of dollars into the local economy each year, and the Visitor Center is considered an important component of that tourism stream. That is reflected in the amount the city has paid the chamber to manage the visitor center and its services — more than $3 million over the last six years alone.
Roseburg City Councilor Tom Ryan — a former 20-year member of the chamber but an outspoken critic of late — said he and other councilors felt it was time for a change.
“We came to the conclusion that we could get more bang for the buck with someone else,” Ryan said.
In a letter recently sent by Roseburg City Manager Nikki Messenger to Chamber President and CEO Debbie Fromdahl, Messenger outlined a number of “concerns” the city has with the way the visitor center was being managed. Those include:
- The lack of space being reserved for visitor’s services and the chamber’s reluctance to allow Anvil to upgrade the center.
- The chamber’s insistence that the center remain quiet.
- The general feeling of hostility towards the city and Anvil.
“Staff is concerned that we would be forced to referee between the two tenants,” Messenger wrote.
Fromdahl brushed aside the criticism and said there would not even be a visitor center as it exists today without her organization.
The old visitor center was dark and tiny, she said, and so in 1997, the chamber began working to get a new center built. The chamber formed a foundation and led the successful fundraising drive for the new building, which opened in 1999, she said.
“The history is that this was all driven by the chamber board,” Fromdahl said. That is why the city gave the board a lengthy lease — 20 years initially with two, 10-year extensions — for $1 a year, she said.
The building was designed to house chamber offices upstairs and the visitor center on the main floor. The chamber, which has about 400 members, keeps the two operations separate, Fromdahl said.
Most importantly, the chamber has been instrumental in drawing tourists to the area, she said, and points to a 40% increase in tourism tax dollars over the last five years as proof.
“The reason why it grew so much is because we did such an awesome job promoting the area,” Fromdahl said.
Ryan doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think they’re directly responsible for getting the hotels and motels in here,” he said. “The chamber didn’t have a very good internet site. There was stuff that hadn’t been updated in a long time.”
In February the City Council invoked a 90-day termination clause in the contract with the chamber for visitor center services and put the matter out to bid. The chamber was one of four organizations that bid for the work, but the city chose Anvil.
The expectation was that Anvil and the chamber could co-exist in the visitor center, Ryan said, but that hasn’t happened. He blames the chamber.
“They are not negotiating in good faith to give Anvil a chance with that space,” Ryan said. “Here we have a city building on city land that the chamber is paying $1 a year for, and we can’t put in what we want.”
Fromdahl said that Anvil wanted to host wine-tasting and other events in the visitor center, which would disrupt the day-to-day work of the chamber.
“There’s a reason why you don’t put a halftime show in the middle of a library,” she said. “Sometimes things just aren’t compatible.”
Is a visitor center needed or even relevant in today’s world of websites and Airbnb?
Absolutely, Ryan insists. ”We think it’s important to have a visitor center,” he said. “When I travel, I love to stop at visitor centers, I love to stop and talk to people who know about the area.”