By Alan Humason
As executive director of the Yolo County Visitors Bureau, I was cheered to read Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis’s thoughtful editorial that kicked off this series about economic development in Davis. What chiefly caught my eye was this statement: “We must act aggressively to capture the benefits of the many people who visit our community. One of the most efficient means to secure revenue is in the hospitality industry and we are far underdeveloped in this domain.”
Before we explore what this observation means, let’s first take a closer look at where we are right now. Davis has 11 hotels with a total of 733 rooms. Davis has not had a new hotel built in more than a dozen years. The city-approved Embassy Suites Hotel and Conference Center would add a net 85 rooms (132 rooms new, replacing 47 old ones at the current—and functionally obsolete—University Park Inn & Suites), but this project is ensnared in ongoing litigation. There are two new extended-stay hotel proposals working their way through the system, and a possible expansion of an existing hotel; however, none of these are remotely close to breaking ground. It is almost unheard of for a city with a major university to not have an extended-stay property.
By contrast, the City of Woodland has opened two new hotels in the past year alone: the 66 room Comfort Suites and the 72 room Fairfield Inn & Suite Marriott, bringing Woodland’s total to 10 hotels and 719 rooms. Woodland has also approved a new hotel to be built across the street from the new County Courthouse—a five-story, 82-room Hilton Home-2 Suites, an upper-end extended-stay brand. That’s a lot of “new” in one short paragraph. Clearly that community has seized on something.
Tourism is a huge industry, especially for California, given our tremendous and diverse inventory of attractions from Disneyland to Yosemite. According to Visit California’s Travel Impacts report (published May 2016), direct travel spending statewide reached a record $122.6 billion in 2015, an increase of 3.4% over 2014 and the sixth straight year of growth. In Yolo County, direct travel spending hit $317 million, generating $25.5 million in state and local tax revenue (both figures also up 3.4%).
Those tax receipts help pay for roads, police, fire, and other essential infrastructure for the place we call home. Take those funds away, you’d have to raise $340 per household in Yolo County to make up the difference.
Perhaps more importantly, tourism accounted for 3,950 jobs for Yolo County in 2015, a 6.2% increase over 2014 and well above the state average. Those jobs generate millions of dollars of disposable income, incredibly important in a county that has struggled for years with employment and economic opportunity. (Current unemployment in the County is 6.1%; just two year ago it was 9%.)
How does tourism contribute to our economy and our community? Looking at hotels, it is chiefly through what is known as the Transient Occupancy Tax, or TOT. In Davis, this is a charge of 10 percent of the total rent paid by the guest. That TOT—$1.3 million in the last fiscal year—goes to the City’s general fund. (There is an additional charge of 2 percent that is used to help fund the activities of the Yolo County Visitors Bureau, which is the one and only promotional organization for Davis that reaches a significant market and audience outside of Davis.) It’s worth noting that on the June ballot, Measure B proposes to raise the TOT to 12%–a 2% increase. If approved, this would add roughly a quarter-million dollars per year to the City’s coffers (based on the current hotel room count).
Tourists are famous for shopping, buying tickets to events, exploring art galleries and historic sites, enjoying local resources like beer- and wine-tasting venues and, of course, restaurants among other pursuits, all of which generate sales (and sales taxes) and support a wide array of businesses. Tourism is essential for some businesses because not all can survive on just the local market alone. It’s also vital to have that initial face-to-face retail experience to help build a customer base beyond our borders, especially with online shopping so ubiquitous.
Think “agritourism” and you’re thinking Yolo County, with Davis as the logical gateway given the access along Interstate 80, the University’s obvious draw (the Mondavi Center, the Arboretum, the coming new Shrem Art Museum), the best-in-nation Davis Farmers Market, the vibrant downtown and burgeoning art scene, the bevy of events year-round, and access to some of the most productive, inviting, and genuine ag land in the world. It’s easy to get to the Old Sugar Mill (11 winery tasting rooms under one roof), Séka Hills, Full Belly Farm (and its annual Hoes Down festival), the beautifully restored Putah Creek, and other nearby attractions from Davis.
So imagine if you will a promotional campaign for Davis that has a satisfied visitor saying, “I shopped the Davis Farmer Market this morning, explored organic farms in Capay Valley this afternoon, and enjoyed farm-to-fork dining downtown before the concert this evening.” Or variations on this theme . . . heck yeah, Davis can be much more of a destination than it is today.
The tourism landscape is incredibly competitive, however, especially considering our neighbors. For example, Napa and Sonoma counties have multi-million-dollars promotional budgets (versus the YCVB’s few hundred thousand). Facilities make a big difference, too; the fact that Davis does not have a hotel conference and event center means big chunks of potential business (corporate events, social, fraternal, and military meeting or reunions, governmental conferences, and other segments) are lost. It’s painful to think that meeting and event planners at UC Davis have to place guests in hotels elsewhere, like West Sacramento or Natomas.
Another area of opportunity is team sports events. This spring, the Davis City Council commissioned a Sports Park Complex Task Force to look into the possibility of creating a major facility that would not only accommodate local clubs and teams, but also be able to host regional and even national tournaments and championship events. Such a facility could bring legions of visiting teams – participants and their families and friends – to Davis hotels, restaurants, retail shops, and movie theaters. To build it would take considerable creativity and effort, but it could ultimately pay for itself many times over and be a tremendous boon to Davis and Yolo County as a whole.
All things considered, Davis is in an enviable position. There are great hospitality proposals in the pipeline. The University, despite short-term challenges, will continue to thrive and grow, and the community as a whole continues to explore ways to deepen partnerships and collaborations. The Davis Arts Alliance is coming together in ways that will increase everyone’s visibility, and through more proactive marketing and cross-promotion, help sell more tickets to more visitors from outside of town. Virtually every day, there is something interesting to do, a compelling reason to visit Davis. And the man who about to become Mayor sees a way forward that embraces tourism as a vital component of our future prosperity.
Alan Humason is the Executive Director of the Yolo County Visitors Bureau
Editor’s note: following the decision by Mace Ranch Innovation Center to put its pending project on hold, the Vanguard decided to re-start a community discussion on the future of economic development in Davis. As such, we are reaching out to a very diverse group of people and starting May 1 we are hoping to publish one op-ed a day on this subject. We are pleased to announce that so far we have over 40 commitments and counting. Beginning today, we will publish one article per day for the month of May into June. If you would like to add your voice – please submit your piece on the future of economic development in Davis (800 to 1000 words).
May 1: Robb Davis
May 2: Elaine Roberts Musser
May 3: Dan Carson
May 4: Matt Williams
May 6: Peter Bell
May 7: Bob Fung
May 9: Rob White