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Touting Polk Tourism

POLK COUNTY -- When Mark Fancey took a trip to the Steens Mountains two years ago, it wasn't just the natural splendor of sparsely populated Southeastern Oregon that piqued his interest.

POLK COUNTY -- When Mark Fancey took a trip to the Steens Mountains two years ago, it wasn't just the natural splendor of sparsely populated Southeastern Oregon that piqued his interest.

Fancey said he noticed how quick employees were to replenish visitor's guide kiosks in restaurants when they ran low, or how easily gas station attendants could provide directions to birding hot spots.

"As far flung as it is, they had amenities to market .... and people just seemed to know the importance of tourism," said Fancey, Monmouth's community development director. "And they worked in lock step to bundle that experience for a visitor."

Fancey said it made him wonder what that effort would do if applied to Polk County.

This area's wine industry -- it ranks second in production in Oregon only behind Yamhill County -- has lured more and more people off Highway 22 in recent years. Dallas draws large crowds for events such as Summerfest.

That said, let's be honest. Most visitors will be hard-pressed to find enough attractions in any one area in Polk County to keep them busy for a weekend.

But what if they were taken together?

"Tourism is something that by necessity is a regional effort, unless you're a big city like Portland," said Shawn Irvine, director of Independence's recently created economic development department.

"And when you start pulling them all together ... our region does have a lot of opportunities."

Irvine, Fancey and other planning and business officials in Polk County have been discussing in the past few months how to go about a regionally coordinated approach to putting the region on the map for day-trippers.

Talks have been preliminary thus far. What the end result might entail -- a formal body, a website -- is unknown.

"But I think we all agree we need a portal to our region," said Austin McGuigan, Polk County community development director. "We're trying to put resources together to come up with a strategy."

Fancey said a catalyst for his interest in a regional tourism discussion was born from his city commissioning a visitor readiness assessment last year and investigating a local attraction website to take advantage of "virtual tourists."

"And there seems to be a lot of similar interest from other groups," Fancey said, opining a joint effort makes sense from a marketing and financial standpoint.

It also makes sense as an economic catalyst during a recession, Irvine said.

"We would like to prepare materials or products so if it recovers, we'll be on people's minds and on the Internet when people are planning trips," he said.

Tourism efforts in Polk County have typically had a local emphasis through area cities' chambers of commerce. Polk County does allot about $13,000 toward brochures, Travel Salem marketing and wine maps.

But there aren't Polk-centric destination marketing organizations here. And compared to Central Oregon or the Columbia River Gorge, this county seems tame in relation as a travel draw.

One issue is lodging. Chelsea Pope, director of the Dallas Area Chamber of Commerce, said beyond Spirit Mountain Casino, Polk County doesn't have upscale hotels, only a handful of spots for RVs and almost no place to camp.

"Overall, there's room for improvement," Pope said. "In Dallas, we've tried to promote day trips ... and I think if the communities came together with some sort of package, we could increase tourism substantially."

There are amenities to build off of, Irvine said, noting an abundance of wineries, birding hotspots such as Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge and the developing Luckiamute State Natural Area.

Roads and vistas have attracted mass bike rides such as Cycle Oregon and the Good Vibrations Road Show motorcycle rally. Western Oregon University and even the quaintness of the area's four main cities are also selling points, he added.

Pope said Polk's stakeholders have an opportunity to take advantage of the agritourism trend.

"We've talked to farmers who've talked about day tours and overnight stays, but there are a lot of logistics with that," she said.

Stakeholders just need to figure out a way to partner and bundle those amenities under a collective marketing umbrella, Fancey said.

"I describe this as one of the best kept secrets in Oregon," Fancey said. "And we're 20 minutes outside of Salem and an hour from Portland."

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