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Knapp: Visit McMinnville turns eye to quality of life, economy

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I don’t have to tell you that McMinnville is a special place. If you are reading this, it’s likely you have already come to this conclusion.

Perhaps you were the lucky person who stumbled on McMinnville as a visitor and made the conscious decision to make this your home. Maybe you’ve lived here your entire life, so have experienced McMinnville through many different stages over the decades.

One thing is certain, McMinnville is growing as a visitor destination. And growth is a scary concept to many people, because it means change.

Jeff Knapp serves as executive director of Visit McMinnville, the local visitor promotion agency. He also serves on the governing boards of the Yamhill County Tourism Partnership, Willamette Valley Visitors Association and TEDx-McMinnville. He and his family have made McMinnville their home for more than 10 years. In his spare time, he enjoys cycling with his daughter and exploring other parts of the county.

Change means becoming familiar with something unknown. With change come new challenges, but also new opportunities.

What do you think of when you hear the word “tourist?” Does it elicit images of people clogging your favorite coffee shop or making it more difficult to park within easy walking distance of your favorite dinner spot? 

How about “visitor?” Do you lean more toward the favorable side?

I know I do. It somehow feels better.

Are you more likely to engage in a conversation with a visitor? I feel almost compelled to make certain a visitor doesn’t miss my favorite things about my community.

With this inherent bias toward “tourism,” it comes as no surprise when people sometimes have difficulty associating it with positive possibilities.    

At Visit McMinnville, we feel it important to make this small, distinct shift in language — to consider our work as serving the visitor economy.

Overnight visitation in McMinnville is outpacing much of the state. Average visitor spending in our community is up, fostering additional investment in lodging, food, beverage, gallery and retailing facilities. 

Thanks to the city’s lodging tax, more than $400,000 will be flowing into its general fund this year. The tax was implemented four years ago and will continue to grow, supplying a new revenue stream to support public services.

The visitor economy not only benefits businesses directly serving visitors: It also enhances the quality of life for residents.

More visitation means more investment in culinary, artistic, cultural and recreational amenities, which are enjoyed by visitors and locals alike. 

On the economic front, that ensures local businesses are able to attract and keep top talent and we can retain talented local youth in our community.  It also helps brand McMinnville as a place companies from all kinds of industries would be open to establishing new businesses.

To this end, Visit McMinnville’s next five years will be focused not only building on awareness of McMinnville as a place to visit, but also on enhancing quality of life and economic opportunity for our residents. 

We will be investing in feasibility studies and data collection to determine what investments in visitor-related opportunities would best serve the community and economy. We will use that information to direct our organization’s efforts.

Out principal focus will be on diversifying our appeal as a destination. We know we are a craft beverage and culinary destination. What other strengths can we further develop?

Expanding and promoting outdoor recreational opportunities, beginning with gravel cycling, will kick things off. Arts, culture and agritourism efforts will also be high on the list of possibilities.

Effective partnerships with the county and local economic development organizations are critical to this effort. It is our hope county leadership embraces strategic planning for further development of our visitor economy. 

Currently, Oregon is one of only two wine regions in the world experiencing continued growth. Wine-focused visitation and the direct-to-consumer sales it supports are at an all-time high. The Oregon wine industry has a $6 billion annual impact on the state economy, and we are at the epicenter.

Yamhill County encompasses the majority of the state’s wine country assets. Yet it does not currently include the visitor economy in its economic development planning or investments.

This is a giant missed opportunity. Think of what we might be able to accomplish with the partnership of the county.

We could focus on developing rural bike lanes, river access enhancements, hiking and biking trail projects. We could also help foster additional rural arts and culture opportunities and direct-to-consumer farm and vineyard sales.

This would not only give people reason to visit on an expanded and extended basis, but also make Yamhill County a better place to live and work.

The city has invested a lot of time and energy over the last few years engaging the public. It has worked closely with local economic development organizations, including the McMinnville Area Chamber of Commerce, McMinnville Downtown Association and McMinnville Economic Development Partnership, in addition to Visit McMinnville.

This work has helped generate a detailed strategic plan, serving as a North Star for how we as a community can steer change in a positive direction.

As the city looks toward the next 20 years, Visit McMinnville sees a clear opportunity in leveraging the visitor economy to both support the city’s economic development plan and make the city a better place to live and work. And that goes for the county as well.

Next time you see an unfamiliar face scanning the facades of local buildings, map in hand, try to view them not only as a welcome visitor, but also as a potential new friend or co-worker. As someone with whom you can share pride in your community. As someone who has the potential to help make this an even better place to call home.

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