Feb. 26—A little more than a year after the Baker County Board of Commissioners was slated to award a contract to run a visitor center in Baker City, the matter remain unresolved.
But commissioners will resume their discussion of the issue when they convene on Wednesday, March 3, at the Courthouse, 1995 Third St. Commissioners likely will take up the visitor services contract around 9:45 a.m.
The contract was on the agenda on Feb. 19, 2020, but commissioners decided to delay a decision.
Shelly Cutler will be following the commissioners discussion March 3 with trepidation.
Cutler is executive director of the Baker County Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber, operating under the organization Baker County Unlimited, has the current contract to run the visitor center on Campbell Street near Interstate 84.
Cutler said she's concerned that commissioners could decide to cancel that contract. The county, using the tax paid by guests and motels and other lodging establishments, gives the Chamber about $77,000 per year to operate the visitor center.
If the contract ended, Cutler said, the loss of revenue would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Chamber to put on Miners Jubilee in July. The event was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cutler expressed the same concern last winter when commissioners were preparing to award the visitor services contract to either the Chamber or to Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort, which also submitted a proposal in December 2019.
After deciding not to award a new contract in February 2020, commissioners have twice extended the contract with the Chamber. The most recent extension, approved Jan. 6, 2021, continues the contract through April 30, 2021.
In the written contract amendment, commissioners stated that they "would like to continue current services until a new contract for Visitor Services is in place."
That probably won't happen for several months. Commissioner Mark Bennett said he wants the county to hire a consultant to help commissioners draft a new request for proposals for the visitor services contract, a process that would take a fair amount of time. The county has yet to hire a consultant.
Commissioner Bruce Nichols said on Friday morning, Feb. 26, that he believes the county needs some sort of visitors center operating consistently, and that he wouldn't support ending the current contract without a way to continue to assist visitors.
In the meantime, Anthony Lakes general manager Peter Johnson has urged commissioners to announce a time frame for finishing a request for proposals and moving ahead with awarding a new contract.
In a Jan. 9, 2021, email to Bennett and Nichols, Johnson called on the commissioners to "simply follow through and release the new RFP as recommended by County legal counsel and as stated in County bylaws."
Johnson noted in his email that although county bylaws state that the visitor services contract is to be awarded every six years, the current contract with the Chamber of Commerce has been extended.
"We do have some concerns on how ethical that is," Johnson wrote.
An attorney representing Anthony Lakes, Rebecca Knapp of Enterprise, sent a letter on Feb. 1 to Andrew Martin, the county's attorney, regarding the visitor center issue.
In his Feb. 16 response to Knapp, Martin wrote that "The County is currently in the process of hiring a consultant to perform an analysis and provide recommendations as to what Baker County needs from a Visitors Center."
In a Feb. 19 email whose recipients included Bennett and Nichols, Johnson, the Anthony Lakes general manager, wrote that Martin's response "gives us much more concern than simply the Visitor Service contract. It gives us serious concern as Baker County residents and tax paying citizens."
Johnson quoted excerpts from Martin's letter, including this sentence: "The process of attempting to create a new RFP (request for proposals) has revealed that there is no directive or any formal guidance identifying what a Visitors Center should or needs to provide to best support Baker County and its tourism industry."
Johnson questioned whether, given the lack of guidance in the current visitor services contract, the county can justify continuing that contract with the Chamber of Commerce.
"I can assure you that I personally would not have a job if I started issuing contracts with no idea of where the dollars were going or what was expected of them," Johnson wrote.
In his letter to Anthony Lakes' attorney, Martin, the county's attorney, wrote that the county intends to wait to issue a request for proposals until it has "an accepted definition, purpose and expectations for a Visitors Center in Baker County that can be clearly articulated to interested bidders."
Martin's letter continues: "This does not mean that the current Visitors Center will simply continue to operate indefinitely. The lack of direction and definition of what is expected and needed on Baker County is equally problematic for the current Visitors Center. Although I do not believe that your client has any actionable grounds to pursue a lawsuit, your points about the delay and frustration for your client are well taken and I have shared them with the Commissioners."