Urdi makes little headway with Mono County Supes on air service subsidy
“We’re looking for $100,000 from the Board, any questions,” Mammoth Lakes Tourism’s Executive Director and Eastern Sierra Air Alliance representative John Urdi asked the Mono County Board of Supervisors, jokingly, at the start of his air service subsidy presentation on Tuesday.
Urdi’s jovial attitude turned dour, however, by the end of the discussion when the majority of Board members were still unconvinced that an air service subsidy was the best use of County dollars.
“I feel like I’ve failed,” Urdi told the Board.
The biggest blow came from Supervisor Hap Hazard who stated that, while he hadn’t committed to any position yet, he would be carefully reviewing (during next week’s budget discussions) whether or not the subsidy dollars the County committed to air service last year should instead be used for June Lake this year.
“There’s only so much water in our bucket and June Lake is the priority,” Hazard said. “There’s still a strong sentiment in the County that we shouldn’t be involved in air service. Some people don’t even want to discuss the airport, let alone subsidies. It’s a huge hurdle to overcome.”
Urdi tried his best to sell the benefits of air service, pointing out that it brought $5.3 million of direct spending to Mono County (with $4.6 million being spent in Mammoth), but Supervisors Hazard, Larry Johnston and Tim Hansen remained skeptical.
“What’s your argument for County support even though Mammoth Mountain closed June Mountain,” Johnston asked.
“Summer air service is not a MMSA program,” Urdi stated. “When the subsidy is shared during the summer, MMSA only gets about 27 percent of the benefit. In winter, MMSA is paying 100 percent of the subsidy, and even then they aren’t capturing all that revenue.”
Urdi also pointed out that Mammoth is the economic engine of the County.
“[Air service] is a disproportionate benefit to Mammoth but property taxes in Mammoth float out to the rest of the county,” Urdi said.
“That’s a hard sell,” Johnston responded. “Property taxes are going down, why isn’t air service helping?”
“Property values are going down,” Urdi said. “Seventy-six people a day isn’t going to change that. The decline in property values here is less than the rest of the state.”
In reference to an earlier agenda item that the Board had reviewed (see story in this week’s paper), Urdi stated, “Air service brings in more than dog sledding.”
“You’re mixing apples and oranges,” replied Johnston.
“No, it’s dollars,” Urdi argued. “Air service brings you a seven time return on your dollars. Thirty-three percent of visitors would not be here without air service [would otherwise not come or be able to come unless they can fly].”
Johnston then questioned Urdi about the order in which the subsidy dollars were spent in the past.
“You used the County money first,” he questioned.
“In the first year, yes,” Urdi replied. This year, if the County commits dollars, Urdi said that money would be used to pay back a portion of the Town of Mammoth’s $325,000 loan against Measure U.
Board Chair Vikki Bauer said she was in support of the air subsidy if the County had the money.
“We’ll have to look at the budget,” Bauer said. (The Board reviews its entire budget next week.)
Ultimately, Urdi would like to see a consistent funding source for the air service subsidy in the form of a business development district so that he does not have to come back to different agencies and ask for money each year.
He also pointed out that educating the public on the benefits of air service for the entire County was a critical component of continuing to get air service off the ground.
Limited drive market
Following Urdi’s presentation, Mono County’s Economic Development Manager Alicia Vennos made a presentation on the County’s tourism highlights, successes and opportunities.
She kicked things off with a plug for air service.
“We are really limited by our drive market,” she explained. “They don’t stay as long or spend as international visitors.”
Vennos claimed that a visitor from China spends on average $6,000 per person, per trip.
“We need air service; it’s a great return on our investment,” she said.
Vennos went on to discuss other tourism aspects such as marketing.
“Our marketing is working,” she said. “For every dollar spent in print marketing we see $8.85 in return. For every dollar spent in web and social media marketing, we see $137 in return.”
Ed. note: These numbers were provided by an outside consultant … who must work for Facebook.
The Economic Development department is working on improving the County’ website including its mobile site.
“Our mobile device visits are up 386 percent, but our bounce rate is 73 percent so we need to work on that,” Vennos said. “Forty-three percent of visitors will go directly to a competitor’s mobile site if yours doesn’t work well.”
Another area of marketing that Vennos felt it was critical the County pursue was the film industry.
The recent filming of Tom Cruise’s “Oblivion” brought in $1 million in local expenditure, according to Vennos, and the average economic impact of a commercial made in the area is $25,000.
“We have to go after this,” Vennos said.