Healdsburg hoteliers and innkeepers are backing a Tourism Improvement District that will add a fee to room rates to pay for promotion and marketing.

The City Council on Monday gave informal approval to the new district, which would tack on a 2 percent "special benefit assessment" to pay for promotion of the hotel industry in Healdsburg.

"We're looking forward to doing a little more lodging-specific marketing when the organization is formed," said Lucy Lewand, owner of the Camellia Inn, a nine-room Victorian bed-and-breakfast inn.

Healdsburg may be a trendy Wine Country destination, but Lewand said promotion is still critical.

"This (economic) downturn has hurt us all, even though we're in Healdsburg," she said. "We want to remain competitive."

Despite Healdsburg's cachet, "a lot of people in the Midwest still think Napa and Sonoma," she said. "They don't know anything about Healdsburg."

The new Tourism Improvement District, spearheaded by the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce, is in response to the dwindling city support for marketing efforts, especially with the loss of redevelopment programs.

In Healdsburg, redevelopment money has helped fund promotional campaigns for the hotel sector, as well as downtown businesses and advertising for auto dealerships.

The Tourism Improvement District would collect an estimated $320,000 annually.

Healdsburg already has a 12 percent "bed tax" that primarily funds park and recreation programs, in accordance with a voter-approved measure.

Cities in Sonoma County and across the state impose such taxes on hotel guests, with the revenues typically going to their general funds for basic services. The taxes range from 9 percent in unincorporated Sonoma County and Santa Rosa, to as high as 12 percent in Windsor, Rohnert Park and Healdsburg.

The County of Sonoma and seven of its cities, excluding Healdsburg and Sonoma, created a business improvement area that assesses an additional 2 percent fee on rooms for tourism promotion in a program overseen by the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau, according to figures provided by Mo McElroy, head of the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce. It raises about $5 million per year.

Santa Rosa also levies an additional 3 percent assessment on hotel rooms for a Tourism Improvement District that raises about $1 million annually.

Circe Sher, marketing director for Hotel Healdsburg and H2 Hotel, said the key with the new tourism district will be spending it on effective programs. It could involve "branded" print and Internet advertising using the previously created "Thankfully It's Healdsburg" design and logo, she said.

It may also involve attendance at trade shows and outreach to Bay Area hotel concierges who can help direct visitors to Healdsburg.

"We have to be effective managers of the money to make it work for us," she said. "We don't want to tax, just to tax."

Sher would like to see efforts to increase visitor stays during mid-week and the off-season, targeting groups and meeting planners.

She said there are plans for a five-member board of hoteliers to oversee how the revenue is spent.

The City Council is expected to hold at least two public hearings on the proposed district in May and June before it can be approved.