‘John Jacob Astor doesn’t give up that easily ...”
Locals have heard the story before, but on Wednesday morning, McAndrew Burns, executive director of the Clatsop County Historical Society, introduced the history to a room filled with people from across the country.
“That is our story of Astoria,” Burns said, finishing his presentation, and the crowd of at least a hundred erupted in applause.
The story helped kick off the biennial Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Conference, hosted by Oregon State University Extension Service and Oregon Sea Grant at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites. The nationwide conference drew professionals in the tourism industry to discuss how recreational tourism is impacting Astoria, and what it looks like on a larger scale.
“We picked Astoria for a lot of reasons,” Miles Phillips, who focuses on tourism and business development for Oregon Sea Grant, said. “Astoria has so much to showcase.”
Initially, the pure location of Astoria was enough to draw the planning committee back in 2014. Throughout the past five years, however, the local shift in economic drivers across Clatsop County made it an ideal place for the conference.
“We wanted to showcase … how tourism was the transforming engine in Astoria’s community well-being after the challenges it faced when the natural resource industry crashed,” Phillips said. “That’s the idea, show how tourism is a piece of the economy. ”
The three-day conference featured presentations from a number of governmental organizations, including the U.S. Travel Association, the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
State Sen. Betsy Johnson pointed out that the major industry shift is not specific to Clatsop County.
“There are lots of you from all over the country, so I’m sure that you have, in some variation, experienced the same thing that’s happening in Clatsop County,” the Scappoose Democrat said at one of the conference’s panel discussions, “and that is the shift from a natural resource based economy to more orientation along the lines of tourism and hospitality.”
Tourism is an expanding economic driver in every state across the country and is a top 10 employer in 49 states, including Oregon, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Due largely to the fact that tourism requires extensive local labor, travel supported 15.7 million jobs U.S. in 2018.
“Once upon a time, fishing was master here,” Johnson said. “We cut trees, we fished, we packed fish. It was a different kind of economy. As the regulatory environment has tightened down on those industry sectors, towns like Astoria needed to find ways to reinvent themselves.”
Johnson pointed to successes like the renovation of the Liberty Theatre, which has undergone major restoration projects throughout the past two decades and is raising $3.3 million to upgrade the interior and exterior of the building.
The theater has been “catalytic in taking back the streets of Astoria,” Johnson said, “and by the way, 17,000 visitors took in some kind of event at the Liberty last year.”
Astoria Mayor Bruce Jones and Clatsop County Commissioner Mark Kujala also highlighted ways locals are engaging with the travel industry by promoting off-season tourism and investing in multiuse hiking trails, all while working to keep the character of the region alive.
“Really for tourism, we’re focusing on getting people to go out in the county and use the county’s trails that they’re expanding,” Jones said, “and then come stay in Astoria and have a beer in one of our brew pubs after you’ve been hiking all day.”
However, some local business owners who have lived through the economic shift have some reservations about the change.
Chris Holen, the chef and owner of Baked Alaska, has been in Astoria for nearly 20 years. “We’ve been here since the beginning of this extension,” he said.
His main concern is that “the infrastructure can’t keep up,” or at least has struggled to so far. Overall, he has mixed feelings about fostering the tourism industry. His business was built for locals, but would not be successful without the influx of visitors, he said. Despite his skepticism, he recognizes that tourism has helped sustain the city.
“We brought something really special back to life,” Holen said.