Visit Central Oregon Awards $840K in Grants to Promote Local Tourism  

Transient Lodging Tax funds will be used to improve accessibility for disabled travelers, improve trails and incubate small businesses in the region

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Visit Central Oregon has announced plans to award $840,000 in grants to 12 central Oregon projects through the Future Fund, generated through a Transient Lodging Tax collected by Travel Oregon and Deschutes County.

According to the organization, the projects selected promote cultural tourism and environmental sustainability and accessibility for people with disabilities.

It’s the largest amount of grant money Visit Central Oregon has ever had to distribute,  CEO Julia Theisen says. Despite shelter-in-place orders and business closures, tourists flocked to Bend, Redmond, Sisters, and La Pine between 2020 and 2022. According to hotel tax data gathered by the Central Oregon Visitors Association, the region generated 50% more transient room tax during the 2020-2021 cycle than the year prior to the pandemic and grew another 14% during the 2021-2022 cycle.

Monthly numbers suggest tourism in the area will be slightly down this year compared to last year, but still above the 2019 average.

Theisen says the Future Fund was much larger than she and her colleagues anticipated, and gave the organization a unique opportunity to make a big investment in projects to improve the region’s future for tourists as well as residents of the area.

“We generated revenue through the pandemic by people coming to Central Oregon and staying in vacation rentals throughout the year when they were homeschooling and working from home,” says Theisen. She notes that Visit Central Oregon was not able to promote tourism in the region during the early part of the pandemic, which also accounted for the bump in funding.  

“We were not able to do a lot of our traditional programming, so we reserved quite a bit of money from that time period when the pandemic was at its worst. Now we’re able to reallocate those funds into the Future Fund,” she adds.

One of the fund’s recipients was Oregon Adaptive Sports in Bend, which was granted $67,475 for its Moving Mountains Program to enhance opportunities for residents and visitors with disabilities to access Central Oregon’s outdoor recreation opportunities. Sisters-based Sisters Trails Alliance will receive 37,152 to modify the Whychus Creek Overlook with two 10-foot viewing sections able to be accessed by visitors in wheelchairs, who could previously only stare up at the overlook’s walls.

Theisen says making the region more accessible to tourists with disabilities was a key pillar in deciding which projects to select, and will be an important part of Visit Central Oregon’s mission moving forward. She pointed to a 2022 literature review by accessible travel website Travability, which valued the disabled tourism market at $10.8 billion, and suggested accessible tourism was the fastest-growing tourist market.

“Not that our organization is only about making money, but it’s a big piece of business,” says Theisen. “You could potentially lose a huge number of people when you’re not making your destination accessible to people with disabilities. It’s also just about being welcoming to people and making people feel like they can come to the region.”

Theisen says the grant piece is just one small component of her organization’s efforts to make central Oregon a more accessible destination. She hasn’t included accessibility in her marketing materials just yet — Theisen says more work needs to be done on the issue — but says her organization plans to partner with Wheel the World, a disability travel website, to conduct a needs assessment next year to identify areas where more accessibility work should be done by the organization.

Theisen isn’t the only one with disability travel on her radar. Eight Oregon Coast destination management organizations were granted a total of $201,240 through Travel Oregon’s 2022 Capacity and Small Project Grants to partner with Wheel the World to conduct similar assessments.  

Theisen says this year’s large amount of Transient Lodging Tax funds is something of an aberration, but that these projects will bolster the region for greater success in the future.

“At this stage we’re not going around and saying, ‘hey, we’re welcoming people from all over to this super accessible region,’ we’re more on the ground level, saying, ‘how do we fare as a region in terms of accessibility and what potential projects that come out of this assessment could we support?” says Theisen.

“My hope is that if we do that project with Wheel the World it could potentially steer some of the projects coming to the Future Fund around accessibility, because we’re identifying a need.”

Other projects funded by the 2023 Future Fund include:

  • The Bend Parks and Recreation District will receive $100,000 to improve access along a busy stretch of the Deschutes River;
  • The Central Oregon Trail Alliance will receive $60,000 to improve signage and trip planning information on trails in the area;
  • The Deschutes Soil and Water Conservation District, along with nine community partners, will receive $95,000 for Got Stars Central Oregon, a community-wide initiative to showcase the importance of dark skies and astrotourism;
  • Discover Your Forest will receive $77,375 to enhance the Skull Hollow Trail Head in the Crooked River Grassland;
  • The High Desert Museum will receive $50,000 for its Changing Exhibits Initiative to bring new experiences to the museum;
  • The Maupin Area Chamber Endowment will receive $60,000 to improve the Deschutes River Athletic Complex;
  • Oregon Equestrian Trails will receive $66,083 to install steel corrals at Sheep Springs Horse Camp;
  • Sunriver Owners Association will receive $74,148 to provide 25 new signs throughout the community;
  • The Tower Theatre will receive $49,140 to improve audio amplification in the venue;
  • The Warm Springs Community Action Team will receive $100,00 for the Warm Springs Commissary, a visitor destination and business incubator for 40 businesses in the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

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