Tourism taxes collected in Moab and Grand County cannot be used to house employees working in the tourism-related industries, but that could change.
Questions about employee housing arose at a special meeting for the Moab Area Travel Council Advisory Board on Thursday, July 19, in the county council’s chambers.
In a round table discussion, the board’s chair, Howard Trenholme, proposed to the board that they take a new approach to the area’s housing needs by asking the state auditor for permission to use Transient Room Tax (TRT) revenue for employee housing.
The county, on average, receives about $5 million per year in TRT revenue.
“That’s the question: Does employee housing fall under a ‘tourist-related’ facility? My argument to the state auditor would be, yes it is. As a class five rural county, we need housing to keep our nice little economic engine running,” Trenholme said.
Eight hotels yet to open are reportedly on the Grand County Building Department’s docket. The hotels will require numerous employees, but many people who live within the City of Moab and Grand County say that they don’t know where those employees will come from, or where they will find housing in the area. At least one hotel is building employee housing into the hotel, but yet another hotel is expected to bus employees into the community from out of town.
Housing that is affordable to the people who live in Moab and Grand County has been an issue “for a long time,” said Judy Powers. She is a local real estate agent who attended the board’s meeting, and said the absence of housing for employees is “nothing new.” What is new, she said, is that amid the increasing tourism industry, she’s concerned for the community’s sustainability and the livability for the people who already live and work in the area.
“This community has to decide if they want to be a community, or if they want to be a money-making machine,” Powers said.
The area is making money, as Trenholme was quick to point out.
“We’re ahead of Utah County in collection of TRT,” Trenholme said. “We’re right behind Washington County, Summit County and Salt Lake County.”
“My big thing is housing, of course, because I really feel that if we were to assign a certain amount toward housing from this advisory board, that funding can be used as a multiplier with other governmental agencies, such as the state,” Trenholme said.
Not everyone at the board agreed with Trenholme.
Sharon Kienzle, manager at the Moab Information Center, questioned if the county should become “a landlord” to employees working in the community. Jaylyn Hawks, Grand County Council member, expressed concerns that she has heard from people in the community.
“We’re talking about building employee housing for tourism-related industry employees. First of all, we subsidize all of these hotels and businesses with the TRT advertising dollars, and now, we’re going to build them housing so that they can now run all their hotels and build more to bring more tourism?” Hawks said.
Trenholme, who also owns Red Rock Bakery, rebutted their concerns and said that he would like to see the community, city and county government support employee housing.
“Here’s the reason why: If I wanted to move to Moab, I’m moving to Moab for Moab. It can be very convenient for the city and county to allow the lodging industry to build the housing, however, when I have an employee come into my Red Rock Bakery and ask for work, I would go, where does he or she live? In housing that is provided by the hotel, but not unless they work for the hotel? That’s called a sort of imprisonment or enslavement. I’m not denying that the lodging industry is not helping solve their own problem, but they’re also creating the reason why we need so many employees.”
Trenholme pointed out that when he goes to the grocery store, he has seen people wearing “help wanted” shirts, which caused several people at the meeting to laugh.
“It’s not funny,” Trenholme said. “Anywhere you walk to in town, the hospitality and tourism … constantly has ads for jobs from people. That means we’re not staffing our businesses with enough employees to deliver services people expect. Our visitors are going to leave with a less-than-satisfied experience, and then we will need the marketing money. Realize that — that if we cannot service our visitors, we will need marketing money to bring more visitors.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Powers said. “If you don’t have enough employees, then you’re going to advertise more to bring more people here. That is ludicrous!”
Powers said that if funds from the TRT revenue can eventually be used toward housing for employees, then it needs to be for the nurses, police officers, firefighters, teachers and others who are the structure of the community.
“I’m not saying tourism needs to go away,” she said. “I moved to Aspen in 1986. This is how it was … there was no housing, and you couldn’t get a job. This has been going on at places forever.”
Trenholme acknowledged that other employees in the city and county also need to have housing options that are affordable to them.
“What about the chefs, the dishwashers, the bussers, the housekeepers, Jeep trail guiders?” Trenholme said.
“I think they need to pay them a livable wage,” Powers said. “They make a minimum wage. They can’t afford to live in a house here. I know, because I’ve been a realtor here for 25 years.”
“The lodging industry has driven our real estate costs up beyond measure,” Trenholme said. “If you make $80,000 a year in this town, there were nine homes available … very few city and county employees make $80,000 a year.”
Hawks said, “To me, this whole discussion, it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense because I, as a county council member, trust that this board is doing a great job. You are doing an outstanding job. We’ve got visitors here that we can’t even accommodate … the county council is doing the very best they can do in the laws to make all the ends meet, and, you know, by the way, raise our minimum wage to $14.28 an hour.”
The board didn’t make any type of formal decision on how to proceed forward, if at all, with TRT spending for housing. Elaine Gizler, director of the Moab Area Travel Council, said more discussion needs to happen about how the TRT funding for employee housing would be used once it was allocated to the county.
“We can talk about putting money aside (for housing) all day long — when will it be an actual structure? How long will it be?” Gizler said. “Five years? Ten years?”
VICE CHAIR RESIGNS FROM BOARD FOLLOWING COMMENT
As the board began to end its meeting at approximately 5 p.m., Hawks offered to share a statement with the board from a member of the community.
“I can tell you the thoughts of one citizen in regards to the criticism to the travel council: ‘I believe that the vitriol and comments to or about those individuals are, however, indicative of the extreme frustration citizens feel when they are disregarded and told that madness must persist because people are just doing their jobs and that they are in effect powerless to effect a change,’” Hawks read aloud from a letter in her hand.
At the conclusion of reading the full statement, Sarah Sidwell, the board’s vice chair, said, “I agree with that 100 percent, and I really hate it when somebody from this board says, ‘We’re just doing our job,’ because you know what? The Nazis were, too,” Sidwell said. At that, nearly everyone in the room began to speak at once.
“I am offended that me and my staff and my office would be equated to Nazis,” Gizler said, and began to gather her paperwork.
“No, that was not what I was saying,” Sidwell said.
“That is awful,” Gizler said, and began to walk out of the room. “This is what it has come to. I am sorry, and when I say we are just doing our job, we are following the law. The state law of Utah.”
“Elaine,” Sidwell said. “You know what, I understand that. I am very, very sorry and … Elaine …”
Gizler left, and after she was gone, the room fell silent for a couple of seconds until Sidwell said, “Oh, wow, I just made a really bad mess up, and I am very, very sorry to everyone in this room that I said that to Elaine and the travel council. May I make one point: Yes, I really hate it when they all say they are just doing their job,” Sidwell said. “One of the reasons that I sit on this board, and one of the reasons I want to live here, is because I feel like I can make a positive impact on the community, even through tourism.”
The meeting quickly adjourned and everyone left.
According to Sidwell, she left the meeting and went to the Moab Area Travel Council, where she again offered her apology to Gizler and told her that she was resigning as a board member. She then sent a letter to the board to apologize and announce her resignation.
In a phone conversation with the Moab Sun News, Sidwell said, “The reason I resigned was because of the hateful, hurtful things I said. There was no filter. I was stupid. I was angry and frustrated.”
She reiterated that the purpose of the special meeting was to address the community’s concerns over the tourism-related impacts to the area, and to see if there was anything that the board could do to address the issues that are of concern to the community, with employee housing being one of those issues up for discussion.
“Moab is selling Moab,” Sidwell said. “The travel council knows that, and they’re trying to help. Personal attacks are not the right way to go, and I went ahead and went there. It’s frustrating, and it’s a tough job.”
Hawks also reflected on the nature of Sidwell’s comments made toward the council during the meeting.
“I was in disbelief that those words were actually said,” Hawks said. “I feel like she is very regretful and remorseful, and the point that she was trying to make got lost because of those words.”
Following contentious special meeting, vice chair resigns, issues apology
“I can tell you the thoughts of one citizen in regards to the criticism to the travel council: ‘I believe that the vitriol and comments to or about those individuals are, however, indicative of the extreme frustration citizens feel when they are disregarded and told that madness must persist because people are just doing their jobs and that they are in effect powerless to effect a change.’”