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Insights from the forum on the tourism-driven economy

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The forum on the Tourism-Driven Economy organized by Napa Vision 2050 on April 1 offered valuable insights that are worth disseminating to the wider public (“Vision 2050 forum looks at tourism -- the good and bad,” April 2).

The panelists were Professor Samuel Mendlinger of Boston University who has consulted on many private and public projects on tourism in more than 20 countries around the world, Eben Fodor of the Planning firm Fodor & Associates who has researched the relationship of growth and prosperity in the top 100 U.S. metropolitan areas and analyzed the long-term fiscal models of large resorts in Oregon and Texas and Professor Susan Handy, an authority on sustainable traffic patterns at UC Davis.

According to Dr. Mendlinger, to realistically deal with the problems of tourism, both residents and governments in Napa Valley must realize that they are no longer dealing with an agricultural but a business economy.

That there is a difference between a hospitality economy reliant on services and a polarized distribution of incomes and a true tourist economy reliant on providing a wide variety of unique experiences and a more equitable distribution of incomes. He cited the Balearic islands as a successful model of the latter.

And unless a wise government engages its residents in seeking solutions, frictions between segments of the population will grow with the increased use of the infrastructure and the finite resources that impact the quality of life of local populations in negative ways.

Mr. Fodor's statistical analysis has shown that growth beyond certain levels, leads to diminishing median incomes among populations in metropolitan areas.

He also showed that governments tend to exaggerate the economic benefits of tourism ($1.63 billion in Napa County) by failing to account for the bulk of the revenue ending up outside the county to multi-national or international corporations and for the large expenditures associated with that growth in more than seven categories of services, most important in the staggering costs of maintenance and expansion of the infrastructure that comes in cycles of several decades.

Local governments receive only a very small amount of the overall tourist revenue such as fees, the Transient Occupancy Tax and sales taxes. Nevertheless, they depend on that revenue to finance the enormous infrastructure expenditures in a never-ending cycle of growth. He cited the sad condition of the local and national infrastructure as a proof of why we have been falling that far behind. "We never charged and still do not charge enough for the true cost of development," he said.

Finally, Professor Handy cited the research findings at UC Davis that proved that widening roads and highways does not alleviate congestion. This finding is now posted on the Caltrans website and in the face of overwhelming evidence is bound to be adopted as its official policy.

She pointed out that the 2007 Napa County draft environmental impact report's recommendations of widening Highway 29 to six lanes from Vallejo to Yountville and several other segments to four lanes by the year 2030 will not solve congestion problems if current growth policies continue. In fact, it will make them worse.

In response to American Canyon Mayor Garcia's comment that growth in the upper valley impacts traffic in his city, she acknowledged that the way traffic engineers currently analyze CEQA requirements for specific projects in Napa County is misleading by only considering their impacts on a very limited, inadequate radius. "This is not how CEQA is supposed to be analyzed," she said.

Unfortunately, in the way of solutions, the options of mass transportation and limiting growth were not encouraging.

George Caloyannidis, forum moderator


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