Borrego mulls plans, seeks funds for year round tourism: Boom-Bust cycle depends on mother nature's bounty.
(Special Report: Tourism). (Borrego Springs, California)
Publication: San Diego Business Journal
Publication Date: 01-APR-02
Author: Rodrigues, Tanya

BORREGO SPRINGS -- To a first-time visitor, the vivid wildflowers sprinkled throughout much of these desert lands are as striking as the desolate area's silence.

This year doesn't look too promising for the annual floral display, since the area is in midst of one of the worst droughts ever recorded in San Diego County, said Mark Jorgensen, superintendent of the Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

Wildflowers, like the rainfall that brings them, are one of several elements vital to the number of tourists that come through Borrego Springs, but which seem beyond anyone's control.

Borrego Springs, which sprawls across a fourth of Borrego Valley's 50,000 acres, has a population of 2,535 year-round In the winter and spring, the number climbs to 10,000.

There is a push in the town to strengthen its tourism business beyond the seasonal residents.

For the most part, Borrego Springs' business community feels the town could have a stronger -- and more controllable -- tourism income if nurtured properly.

Many people, like Linda Carson, executive director of the Anza Borrego Foundation, are trying to find ways to make the area's hospitality business less fragile.

* It All Depends On the Weather

"For Borrego Springs, it's a boom-bust kind of roller coaster ride," Carson said. "When we have a good wildflower year, we get a lot of visitors, and things are going gangbusters, and then the summer ... nobody comes out to the desert in the summer."

The season currently runs from October through May, and the main draws for visitors are the 600,000-acre state park for hiking and camping, and a couple of resorts for golfing, tennis or relaxing, such as the 77-room La Casa Del Zorro Desert Resort.

One challenge, however, is that it's tough to make money when the tourism season is unpredictable. An inconsistent number of restaurants, retail and other visitor haunts operate at a given moment.

"The difficulty is that even in a good season, even when we have lots of folks during February, March and April, sometimes that's not even enough to carry a business over the dead of summer," she said.

It's cheaper to shut down than pay expensive electric bills for air conditioning, refrigeration or other equipment, Carson said.

As a result, she said, "The few (visitors) that do come out over the summer will find resorts completely closed, very limited restaurants open ... It's like a no-win situation."

Carson said the town can smooth Out the pattern and eventually expand the season to year-round.

* Looking to Other Dry Weather Markets

"It's a challenge, but Palm Springs has done it, and Tucson has done it," she said. "So we're going to try and market those things that might bring people out during the summer."

Others, such as Jorgensen, feel the best approach is increasing visitors during the current season.

"I'm not sure we're ever going to extend the season," Jorgensen said.

He said popular desert destinations like Palm Springs come close to shutting down in the summer.

"I think we need to look at October through May a lot closer and do what we can to enhance people's experience when they come here, so they'll want to come back," he said.

The park is upgrading its visitor center and restrooms, which will cost more than $1.5 million.

Three and a half years ago, Carson and other residents decided to look into revitalizing Borrego Springs.

They were concerned that beyond the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce, there wasn't a unified effort to market it for tourism and oversee the way it administered to visitors.

"That was the impetus that started this grass-roots organization," Carson said. "The question kept coming up -- this town is going to get discovered some day, and we are going to have people coming over that hill ... and we're not going to be prepared."

* Proactive Rather Than Reactive Stance

Rather than reactionary, the group hoped to be visionary.

"That's where the whole movement came from ... that time was running out and we'd better get our act together," Carson said.

The town doesn't track the number of visitors it gets from year to year.

Anza Borrego state park, however, monitors those figures. Park officials said its season begins in July, and it counted 644,626 visitors in its 2000-01. The previous year, it had 424,236, compared to 505,390 in 1998-99 and 501,046 in 1997-98.

In years when there's been abundant wildflowers, the numbers spike to the levels reported in 2000-01 and 1997-98. Visitors totaled 800,229 in 1995-96 and 877,126 in 1991-92.

So far, the revitalization group's efforts have culminated in a study about the area's prospects as a tourism destination.

Roger Brooks, president of Chandler, Brooks & Donahue, Inc., the Olympia, Wash.-based tourism development company firm that did the report, said Borrego Springs does well during the winter and has "tremendous potential" for the whole year.

"It's a great escape," he said. "It has a totally different feel than places like Palm Springs."

Brooks had several marketing-oriented suggestions. One was that any organization trying to promote Borrego Springs use the same logo that's been created for the town's chamber of commerce's tourism materials.

Another suggestion was developing a photo library that shows all of the various activities the area offers. The idea was to encourage visitors to plan for extended stays.

Another suggestion was to create a comprehensive activity guide booklet that would include weather, the range of activities and locations and distances.

* Chamber Takes Leadership Role

The work has already begun. Chamber member Rick Rabuck is upgrading the chamber's Web site to allow people to request information and make hotel reservations online. He's also begun the visitors' guide.

The chamber is also working on creating a database of current visitors.

Rabuck, who divides his time between Borrego Springs and Los Angeles, where he owns a marketing agency, continues to encourage travel writers to visit and increase the number of stories written about the area.

He said the chamber uses its $50,000 advertising budget, funded by hotel taxes, to run ads in AAA guides and other regional publications.

The town is working with the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, with which they renewed their mutual goals in a meeting last fall.

Kerri Verbeke Kapich, ConVis' vice president of marketing, said the bureau continues to support Borrego Springs' tourism, particularly by pitching stories that have landed in publications all over the country, including Sunset Magazine and National Geographic Traveler.

Although marketing was examined, most of Brooks' report focused on what he considered a major problem -- the area's signs.

"When you first come into Borrego Springs, the signage situation is horrendous," he said. "Not only are there a lot of billboard signs promoting every kind of development down there, there are very few signs that tell you how to get around."

He also said Borrego Springs needs to make its downtown area more pedestrian friendly.

Some of the changes outlined in the plan could take 15 years. One project mentioned, narrowing the main Street, would cost several million dollars and would need grants to pay for it, he said. The process would take 10 to 15 years, he said.

The signage improvements would take five years, he said.

* Groups Compete

For Hotel Taxes

Funding will depend on grants and whatever Borrego Springs can procure from the San Diego County.

Borrego Springs has four hotels and several motels with a total of close to 400 rooms.

An unincorporated town, Borrego Springs sends its hotel taxes, formally known as transient occupancy taxes, to the county, as do many communities in San Diego.

From there, the county Board of Supervisors decides where the money is allocated; hundreds of organizations in San Diego make requests. Borrego Springs is located in county Supervisor Bill Horn's 5th District.

Its hotel tax revenues are increasing. In 1989-90, revenues were $222,827. In 1995-96, they were $444,304. In 1999-00, the hotels generated $464,980 in tax revenue.

According to Rogers' report, $190,500 was requested that year for projects in Borrego Springs and $96,000 was actually awarded.

In the county's last fiscal year, 2000-01, which ended June 30, Borrego Springs' hotels and motels generated $457,325 in tax revenues. It was awarded $131,000.

According to Brooks, the town needs to see more tax money to fund tourism-related projects. In his report, he said the town needed $150,000 each year for three years.

* Horn And

Hotel Taxes

Horn said decisions about allocating the tax money are difficult to comment on until he knows the amount of revenues the county's hotels generated for the 2001-02 budget. Auditors expect to have the totals sometime next month.

Increasing Borrego Springs' funding seems unlikely, Horn said. "As far as (transient occupancy taxes) goes, I've been extremely generous with Borrego," he said. "I don't see how I can up it any more. They want to keep 100 percent of what they generate, and that's just not possible."

No area in the county keeps all the hotel tax funds it generates, he said.

"It's got to be shared with basically three districts who raise no TOT, and it has to go into a regional pot."

Horn said he's sympathetic to what the people in Borrego Springs want to do. Still, he said, "At the same time, they have to face reality. I've got a number of other supervisors who look to that pot of money also. It would be nice if I could keep it all, but I can't."

Any final decision depends on the budget process and the other requests, he said.

"If I'm going to give it to one area, some other place is going to lose," he said. "The pie is the TOT, and the amount of money that we generate and the formula that (decides what) we get to keep in North County, and that's where Borrego's money comes from."

When asked if investing money into Borrego Springs' tourism could increase the business and, in turn, increase the hotel taxes the area generated, Horn was noncommittal.

"Frankly," he said, "I don't know."

* Redistricting Could

Impact Available Funds

With the redistricting that took place last year, the 5th District could end up with more money because it now includes Rancho Santa Fe, Horn said.

However, the pie will likely be smaller because of the post-Sept. 11 slump and the sluggish economy, he said.

The study suggested the other organizations in town ask for less funding from hotel taxes for the next couple of years so Borrego Springs' tourism marketing could get a boost.

Jorgensen isn't sure that will work.

"I think some of that outlook is a little shortsighted," he said. "There's a lot of great ideas in the study, but essentially they're asking everyone in town -- all the entities -- to forgo TOT, and a lot of the entities are saying, 'No way, we can do without that.'"

Funding is an issue, but so are attitudes among town residents.

"As far as tourism goes, I think that we're having somewhat of a struggle amongst ourselves in Borrego deciding which way we want to go with it," said John Yzaguirre, general manager of the Borrego Springs Resort and Country Club.

Some people prefer Borrego Springs' slower pace; others prefer the regularly open restaurants and retails shops that are supported by tourists, he said.

"I think we are doing certain studies and such that are opening a lot of eyes around here to see exactly where we are drawing people from and where we need to concentrate on getting more people this year," Yzaguirre said.

Yzaguirre compared it to "cleaning house before company comes."

He continued, "We're stalling to see eye to eye ... and that had been one of the biggest challenges."