City sees increase in tourism, visitor spending
FARMINGTON – While many sectors of the area's economy are struggling through tough times, tourism is providing a bright spot for local industry.
On Thursday, the Farmington Tourism and Convention Bureau presented its annual report to an audience of regional business leaders. The research showed a surge in visitor spending, including an 8.3-percent increase in tax revenue from the accommodation and food service sector since 2014.
While business trips have declined, bureau Director Tonya Stinson said many companies have seen a rise in weekend and leisure travelers.
“There’s been a big shift,” Stinson said. “We really want to work tourism into the local economy, and become a base camp for the Four Corners area.”
Larry Johnson, owner of the Soaring Eagle fishing lodge near Navajo Dam, said his business has finally bounced back to pre-recession standards. After the economy tanked in 2008, Johnson said he upped his marketing strategies and has started attracting visitors from Texas, California and the East Coast.
It’s exciting to see,” he said. “I’m glad others are taking tourism so seriously too.”
It doesn’t hurt, Johnson added, that the San Juan River consistently is listed among the top 10 fishing spots in the world.
Although trends appear promising, tourism is still a budding industry in San Juan County. Currently 8.1 percent of the county's residents rely on the industry for employment, according to the bureau's report.
Thursday’s event explored one option to boost jobs, though — show business.
Don Gray of the New Mexico Film Office gave a presentation explaining how communities can reap the benefits of film productions coming to town.
The state offers tax incentives to the film industry, in the hopes of boosting local economies. Gray said movie sets can provide New Mexico residents with jobs ranging from construction to catering.
“Why should they have to bring someone in from out-of-state to walk Johnny Depp’s dog,” Gray said, referring to the famous actor known for pampering his pets. Depp was rumored to have been in northwest New Mexico for filming of the "Lone Ranger."
Gray said a block-buster hit can immortalize an area, and continue to draw visitors for years.
“It’s like a multi-million dollar commercial for your town,” Gray said.
But while the benefits seem straight out of Hollywood, critics argue they may be superficial in nature. A study ordered by state lawmakers shows that between 2010 and 2014, every dollar spent on film incentives returned 43 cents in tax revenue.
“The rest of that is going to the bottom line of all the big movie companies,” said Paul Gessing, president of the Albuquerque-based Rio Grande Foundation, which advocates for limited government. “It shows an outright transfer of payment from taxpayers to the film industry.”
Gessing added that the jobs are often temporary as well.
While movies may not be the answer for Farmington, the city sits poised to embrace another action-based industry.
Later this month, changes to a state law will take effect allowing off-road vehicles to drive on paved streets. Local tourism officials said the law may allow the city to take full advantage of the Glade Run Recreation Area and other surrounding off-road playgrounds.
Darryl Dunlap, owner of Dunlap Performance and Motorsports and a member of the city's tourism board, said his customers will be able to drive to gas stations and trail heads without the hassle of a truck and trailer. Dunlap said the new law will also provide the opportunity to enter the off-road vehicle rental business.
Stinson said the changes are just one more example of making Farmington more visitor friendly.
"We're excited and optimistic about what this can open up for us," she said.
Brett Berntsen covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606.