Close to Home: Growing pains in a tourism economy

Tourism is the best economic development driver, right? Tourists come, spend their money and leave. Or so we've been led to believe. New and extensive research is debunking the myth of an economy dominated by tourism.|

Tourism is the best economic development driver, right? Tourists come, spend their money and leave. Or so we've been led to believe.

New and extensive research is debunking the myth of an economy dominated by tourism. A recent symposium in Napa County explored the benefits and costs. National experts shared data that can help us understand both sides of the story.

Myth No. 1: Tourism creates income and local jobs.

That's only partially true. Many low-wage jobs are created, but they can be seasonal with workers requiring multiple jobs to survive.

Samuel Medlinger from Boston University's economic development and tourism program discussed how local workers and young people are increasingly displaced from a community when tourism dominates the local economy.

Myth No. 2: Tourism benefits everyone.

New research shows that there are only a handful of beneficiaries. According to community planning consultant Eben Fodor of Fodor & Associates LLC: “Growth clearly provides benefits to some elements of the local population - real estate, financial and land development. Growth generates demand for more housing and commercial space that these businesses build, sell and finance.”

Business interests represent a politically influential constituency that benefit from increasing local growth, while the rest of us endure higher rents, pricier restaurants, more traffic, less water and environmental degradation.

Tourism development costs local government and taxpayers a lot of money. Public resources spent on roads, sewer, water and infrastructure reduce investment in critical areas such as human services.

Myth No. 3: More and faster growth will benefit local residents economically.

Most cities in the U.S. have operated on this false assumption. Fodor studied the 100 largest metro areas, representing 66 percent of the total U.S. population, comparing growth rates over a nine-year period relative to prosperity indicators. Surprisingly, he found that areas with the lowest growth rates fared the best.

The study compared trends in per capita income levels, unemployment rates and poverty rates with growth rates. Faster-growing metro areas had a steeper decline in per capita income than slower-growing areas. Slower-growing areas also had lower unemployment and poverty rates.

Our supervisors continue to encourage rampant wine industry hospitality development and vacation rentals that displace affordable rental housing.

In October 2014, they decided to address the impacts from promotional events caused by a 400 percent increase in wineries and tasting rooms from 2000 to 2014 - with nearly 70 new applications pending approval. But the supervisors haven't taken any action, despite promising protective standards by this spring.

Meanwhile, real estate investors are pursuing event-related permits to boost agricultural land values, creating a free-for-all of applications with a greater emphasis on events and restaurant-style dining.

Exchanging our ag economy for a rapidly growing tourism economy is changing Sonoma County in ways that, if left unchecked, may degrade our quality of life forever. Will our officials choose a better future that protects ag land for agriculture, avoids relentless rural hospitality-related development and ensures the survival of our town-centered businesses? Citizens want to be heard, listened to and respected, not called a vocal minority by those who resent any effort by residents to have a say in the future of their region.

Tourism can only be sustainable if planning is carefully managed so that the financial benefits are not permitted to outweigh the negative impacts on the community.

Padi Selwyn is co-chair of Preserve Rural Sonoma County, an author, former banker, ad agency owner and marketing consultant. She has been a resident of Sonoma County for 40 years.

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