Borrego mulls plans, seeks funds for
year round tourism: Boom-Bust cycle depends on mother
Tourism). (Borrego Springs, California)
Publication: San Diego
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
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
For the most part, Borrego Springs' business community feels the town could
have a stronger -- and more controllable -- tourism income if nurtured
Many people, like Linda Carson, executive director of the Anza Borrego
Foundation, are trying to find ways to make the area's hospitality business
* 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
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
An unincorporated town, Borrego Springs sends its hotel taxes, formally
known as transient occupancy taxes, to the county, as do many communities in
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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."