LAS ANIMAS COUNTY – Trinidad’s tourism industry is booming. Hotelier Cy Michaels is chair of the local tourism board. She said there are so many festivals and events happening every week that she can’t even name them all.
“We have the Blues Fest and we have ArtoCade, we have Music and Lyrics, we have one of the best July 4th Celebrations bar none of any town of this size in the State of Colorado.”
Michaels was part of the political campaign back in 2001 that successfully got a 3 percent lodging sales tax passed. She believes that money has been instrumental in helping her industry grow.
“I remember when we had three restaurants, that we now have 35 restaurants here in town, the excitement of it.”
But this summer, a question came up about whether the lodging tax being spent the way voters intended. At a meeting in June, City Attorney Les Downs told the tourism board in no uncertain terms that it’s not.
“This board was told to do things that were absolutely wrong and I was, I would say, deliberately and intentionally kept out of the mix because what was done was nothing short of illegal,” Downs said.
He was referring specifically to the purchase in 2017 of the trolley and the associated maintenance and operating costs. Downs also things money is inappropriately being used to fund the operation of the Colorado Welcome Center.
In its current budget, the City of Trinidad plans to take in approximately $265,000 from the lodging tax this year. Less than half of that money is budgeted for advertising and billboard expenses. Downs told the board the ordinance is clear about how the lodging tax should be spent.
“It says exclusively for the purpose of advertising and marketing for tourism.”
City Manager Greg Sund disagrees. He and the City Council hired a private law firm in July to get a second opinion.
Those outside lawyers reviewed the ordinance and decided the trolley and the welcome center can both be considered tourist information centers. The ordinance allows lodging tax money to be spent building tourist information centers as a capital expense.
Sund pointed out that the trolley and welcome center primarily serve tourists.
“To me, that’s what a lodging tax is used for is both attracting visitors and also working with them to give them the best experience possible,” he said.
Michaels remembers asking about trolleys while researching the lodging tax prior to the 2001 election. She was advised by communities who had passed similar tax questions to include the tourism center language in the proposal.
“If we’re marketing and advertising through the Welcome Center or through a kiosk on a street corner or through the trolley, what we’re really trying to do is get the information out to the people about all the stuff that’s going on in the city,” she said.
The operating costs for the Welcome Center are a new development. It is a state-owned facility that opened prior to the passage of the lodging tax. Up until last year, the state had paid the operating costs. The city took responsibility this year after the state pulled its funding.
City manager Sund said he is working with the Governor’s office to try and get funding restored.
He also believes the tourism board will have more money to spend on marketing and advertising in 2019. City Council used marijuana sales taxes to completely pay off the remaining $325,000 debt owed on the trolley.