Diversity still highest priority after Astoria's visitor counts soar in 2003Debie jane Roberts does not bat an eye when she says "in the whole county, Astoria is the most sophisticated."

And Roberts knows sophisticated. She is the director of the retail division for Valley Bronze of Oregon.

Sitting in the art company's new gallery on Commercial Street, surrounded by fine art with classical music playing softly, Roberts says Astoria is changing.

More travelers are drawn to Astoria by its history, natural beauty and a burgeoning art scene. "The visitor climate is very positive," she says. "I think Astoria is worthy of this caliber of art."

As evidence, Roberts says the gallery has had quite the successful start, despite opening in fall - at the "end" of the tourist season.

MAX CHARLTON - The Daily Astorian

While tourism supports a range of businesses in Clatsop and Tillamook counties, as noted above, , restaurants and the lodging industry benefit the most. Source: Dean Runyan Associates

That's part of the reason Valley Bronze decided to relocate its gallery from Cannon Beach to Astoria. The other is the spacious new location at 12th and Commercial streets, which affords plenty of natural light and floor space.

But even with a great gallery, art still needs customers to buy it. Roberts says Astoria is drawing the type of people who purchase fine art.

The gallery is one of a handful of new businesses in Astoria that residents point to when they discuss signs of Astoria's emergence as a tourism destination. Others see new restaurants and new hotels as symbols of Astoria's future as a serious player in the game of North Coast travel.

As Astoria's economy shifts to one based, in part at least, on tourism it will mean changes to the types of jobs and opportunities available. But while travel-oriented businesses are coming, city leaders say Astoria won't give up on other types of development.

New hotelsJust off Marine Drive near the Doughboy Monument, construction workers hurry to finish the 78-room, four-story Holiday Inn Express. It opens April 1.

One of the project's co-owners, Gearhart resident Dave Webber, built and operated the Best Western Oceanview Resort in Seaside with his partner Brian Dion. The two sold that hotel in September 2002.

He said they had been scouting locations for a hotel in Astoria for some time because the demand for rooms here should continue to grow.

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Hear reporter Andrew Adams talk about the series"We've seen a lot of positive changes in the past four to five years," he says.

The hotel is in the Astor-West Urban Renewal District. Tax revenue generated there will help pay for the costs of the Port of Astoria's new conference center and improve streets and other infrastructure.

Two other hotels, restaurants and other retail operations are planned there.

Webber says the district is one of the reasons why he decided to build at the foot of the Astoria Bridge, but he said the waterfront spot offered some of the best views in Astoria.

And while a conference center at the port could mean some business for his hotel, he says he plans to lure his own business travelers with two conference rooms at the Holiday Inn.

Offering suites with Jacuzzis, fireplaces and sweeping views of the Columbia River, Webber says he also expects to make revenue off tourists' increasing interest in the city.

This boosts revenue from the city's transient occupancy tax.

Astoria City Manager Dan Bartlett says almost 100 new hotel rooms have been added to Astoria in the last decade. The transient occupancy tax (TOT) is becoming a source of revenue that should become a larger part of the city's budget, he says.

The tax is 9 percent. About two-thirds goes to the general fund, one-ninth goes to the general fund for the chamber of commerce and two-ninths to the Port of Astoria's conference center.

Revenue from the tax increased from $220,113 in 1991 to $396,745 in 2002. The revenue from 2003 at $609,139 was the highest because a tax increase passed Jan. 1 2002, raised the TOT to 9 percent.

Bartlett says Astoria is turning into a destination, but won't become "a total tourist town like Cannon Beach or Seaside."

Raising the TOT was a demonstration of the city's faith in tourism and the conference center. Building the center shows that the port also sees part of its economic future as defined by tourism.

The port's deputy director, Bill Cook, says the conference center is planned to be used primarily for business, not recreation. The best conferences he says he's attended have been in communities that offer a distinct sense of place, somewhere he wanted to come back to.

He says that's the intention of the port - to demonstrate to conference center visitors that Astoria has more than just the meeting location. It offers the natural beauty of the river and other attractions.

For the port, though, tourism is just one element. Cook prizes diversity. And for the port that diversity can be seen by its recent efforts to buy a large-scale boat hoist for its marine service yard, and negotiations with an unnamed company to build a large-scale fish processor and cold storage warehouse on Pier 1.

"From our perspective it comes back to how we defined our priorities," he says. "Tourism is just one line of business."

Tourism spending on the riseDean Runyan makes his career studying tourism. Since 1984, his company, Dean Runyan Associates, has studied the impacts of tourism and provided feasibility studies and resource planning for public and private clients.

He says Astoria has long been a "stop-over" spot for coastal tourists, a place to sleep before getting back on the road. But in recent years it has slowly become a destination.

While his firm does not have any data specific to Astoria, Dean Runyan Associates has studied the North Coast and Clatsop County. His data shows that tourism spending has increased steadily during the last decade with significant jumps in the last few years.

For example, spending on hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts was about $123 million in 1997 and increased to $166 million in 2001. Countywide, travel spending was $234 million in 1997 and $295 million in 2001. The firm found that about a quarter of all of the jobs created in Clatsop County were in the travel industry. In 2000, of the county's 22,417 available jobs, some 5,262 (23.4 percent) were tourism related.

Runyan says the expansion of the lodging industry in Astoria is a sign the city is luring more visitors, but he couldn't say for certain if the city is on the path to becoming a tourist town.

"Astoria is an interesting community," he says. "If it will become more specialized as a tourism-orientated community, I don't know. Almost certainly the market will grow because the population is growing."

Portland's growth will mean more tourists for Astoria. Runyan says if the economy continues to improve, more people will have discretionary income they can use for such things as a trip to the coast.

"I would expect the coast in general to feel that over time," he says.

Tourism can be an entry-level startIf Astoria does take the route to market itself more aggressively to tourists, Runyan says the city will see some definite changes. He says the travel industry is an excellent provider of entry-level jobs.

One of the biggest criticisms of tourism is that it does not provide communities with living wage jobs. Runyan says the travel industry does, however, provide jobs a community needs and can often provide many opportunities for those with the entrepreneurial spirit.

Today, he says, it is becoming difficult for people to simply graduate from high school and take a job at a lumber mill or factory to earn a living wage.

MAX CHARLTON - The Daily Astorian

Tourists have been spending more in Clatsop County each year for the past decade. Source: Dean Runyan Associates

"That really isn't the way it works anymore," he says. "If you want a job as a young person, especially if you're going to school, most often you're working in the travel industry."

Unlike the high-tech field, the travel industry offers employment in retail stores, hotels, gas stations and restaurants, but may not offer the types of opportunities for careers. But it does give young people, the unskilled and immigrants their first chance at climbing the employment ladder.

"If you look at a community like Astoria that really has a diversity of jobs right now to some degree ... in transportation, government and so on ... the travel industry as part of that mix can work very well; it can provide those entry-level jobs," Runyan says.

Tourism also gives people a chance to open their own business. Because the travel industry does well in supporting the retail and hospitality industries a healthy tourist environment can give people the influx of customers they need to get their business up and running.

The regional economist for the state Employment Department, Erik Knoder, says the department does not track the effect of tourism on employment, because in the state's view: "Tourism is not an industry, tourism is a source of customers."

But based on the changes in the number of jobs in the retail and hospitality industries, he says it is possible to develop a snapshot of tourist activity. On the North Coast it appears to be on the rise, but he couldn't say for certain if Astoria is on its way to becoming a tourist town.

MAX CHARLTON - The Daily Astorian

Hotels and motels in Clatsop and Tillamook counties still receive the bulk of the money spent on accommodations by tourists, but many still come just on day trips. Source: Dean Runyan Associates

In terms of if tourism creates quality jobs, Knoder says that it does provide excellent jobs for people such as students who want work for the summer. And in some cases, it does provide a trickle of opportunity for other industries in an area.

For example, he said when someone builds a vacation home, they're providing work for the local construction company.

Yet, he adds, "I still think it's pretty strongly a seasonal economy."

And according to statistics by the Oregon Employment Department it would appear tourism is still to a large extent seasonal in Clatsop County. For the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes hotels and restaurants, the department reports there were 2,750 jobs in December 2002 and 3,750 in August 2002. The pattern repeated in 2003.

Keep it diverseRunyan says that a community based solely on tourism can offer plenty of entry-level jobs for people, but it can severely limit the chance of their advancement.

"If a community becomes very orientated to travel, primarily a travel destination, it has to work hard to provide opportunities for high-level positions in the area," he says.

Towns such Aspen, Colo., are playgrounds for the rich. But waiters, hotel desk clerks and retail workers cannot afford to live there. Also, they have difficulty moving into better-paying jobs because there are such a small number of opportunities for advancement in the local economy.

"What happens is they (the towns) tend to need more entry-level employees than they can really house," he says.

Runyan says he believes tourism then is not the best economic engine on its own, but rather as one ingredient for the stew of success.

"Astoria should really try and enhance what other kind of industries it has as well," he says. "I think it's very important if you have an opportunity to maintain diversity you should take it."

An opportunity for diversity in Astoria could be the transportation industry. Runyan says Astoria, at the intersection of two highways and along a major waterway and serviced by rail, could develop more economic opportunities from those.

He says that industry can provide some of the most desirable jobs a community can have such as ship building and ship repair.

"Transportation is very desirable and Astoria I know has tried to be a mover and shaker in that industry," he says.

The drive for diversity is shared by Astoria's Development Director Todd Scott.

He said tourism will play a larger role in the city's economy, but doesn't think it's the sole future for Astoria.

"I think in order for us to be a real vibrant community (there) needs to be a real mix of industries," he says.

While fishing and forestry has declined, Scott said he believes those industries will remain stable and that Astoria could become "the regional hub for a lot of things."

Those other things could be the health care industry, government jobs and jobs tied to education at Clatsop Community College.

And the impact of those industries can be felt in Astoria year-round, not just with the sun of summer, he says.

"If Astoria can get into the position where it really markets itself on more than just a seasonal basis, which it's starting to do ... tourism becomes a more constant factor. But it's not as solid as some of their other industries," he says. "It's a part of the future, it's only a part."

Scott says the future of Astoria should be directed by the people who live here - not by tourists. He says a truly successful tourist town isn't just a destination that caters to the travel industry, but something genuine that retains the quality of life for the people who live and work there.

He says the Riverwalk is a good example of a feature of Astoria that is popular for out-of-towners but has value for the locals.

"Sure the tourists love that, but I think most of the people you see down there are locals," he says. "It really has become a gathering place for the community."

Quality of life should be the guiding principal of building tourism in Astoria, he says, not whether a traveler may stop in Astoria.

Todd says if Astoria is a place that the locals can enjoy and are proud of then the tourists will come.

"I think it's an important factor, but I believe that the citizens of Astoria have more at stake than just tourism," he says. "I think they have an opportunity to create a vibrant community for themselves, not just for visitors."

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