I attended the public hearing last week on the County Council’s proposed resolution to endorse legislative changes to the allowable uses of the Transient Room Tax (TRT). The proposed resolution envisions giving the existing travel council the discretion to use TRT funds for additional community needs such as affordable housing, small business development and mitigating negative impacts from tourism. Currently, the TRT is collected from nightly rentals in the county and is largely used for further advertisement of Moab.
I was immediately taken aback by the defensive and entitled tone taken by numerous hoteliers, real estate agents and developers in response to the council’s resolution. The fearmongering, the heckling of individuals that spoke in favor of the proposal, and the completely unnecessary statements regarding how long a person has lived in town gave this issue the flavor of one that falls along our community’s classic political divide.
But the schism on this issue isn’t so typical for our town. While we usually split ourselves along the lines of progressive versus conservative, this issue shines a light on a different kind of divide that is common for the country at large: the wealthy and everyone else. In reality, the people that are so vocally defending the amount of advertisement money earmarked to promote Moab are the same people who profit directly from the sheer number of tourists. They are people who have current and future investments in squeezing every last person this town can possibly hold into more and more of their own accommodations.
This should be a fully bipartisan issue, and I believe it is. Any person that calls this place home should be concerned about being outpriced and overrun by resort-style industrial tourism. Moab, as diverse as it is, can come together on this.
The issues that this proposal brought forth are ripe. Do we want more advertisement of our home? How do we feel about the physical, psychological and monetary squeeze of living in an overly desirable location? Do we want UTVs on our streets and their excessive noise in our neighborhoods? How do we avoid strips of big-box stores? Do we want tourists in our town 12 months per year? Are we worried that one less dollar spent on advertising will crumble our tourism economy?
I digress. At the hearing, we all digressed. These are tangible concerns that will undoubtedly arise when the community starts a conversation about the TRT. One also could wonder if we digressed so much simply because of the fearful rhetoric sent to the Chamber of Commerce prior to the hearing, which immediately divided those in attendance and tainted the chance of having any rational discussion on the issue. Instead of this being one of supporting the local community alongside tourism promotion, the issue was framed as an all-out attack on the tourism industry – a notion that is simply not supported by a plain reading of the resolution.
Unfortunately, the public hearing was not a factual debate over the future of our community and how we may be able to mitigate the impacts of seemingly endless tourism growth. For many in attendance, the hearing was little more than a predictable response by hoteliers, real estate agents, developers and the travel council to anyone who might question the wisdom of growth for growth’s sake or suggest ways that existing TRT funds might be able to help alleviate certain community needs.
In the face of our county government being pushed around by developers, we must think and feel critically. This is a time in which we might be able to divert from a well-paved path that ends at selling out everything that makes living here special. But, to do so, we must support our local governments in making decisions to support quality of life alongside growth and development.
This resolution is a step in the right direction. I believe it raises the very issues that have the ability to bring our community together. I believe that most of us care enough about our home that we are able to have these conversations. And, despite recent divides, I believe we are together in this.