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The Bus Fair comes to Oakridge: An example of park fee mismanagement by the City?

Sign that greets visitors at the entrance to Greenwaters Park in Oakridge Herald photo

By KATE DOLAN/for The Herald  —  This weekend in Oakridge, the Bus Fair is expected to draw hundreds of visitors to Greenwaters Park to tour schoolies, renovated and converted school buses, as they enjoy live music and an array of vendors.

The Bus Fair was approved for allocation of Transient Room Tax (TRT) funds and Rural Tourism Marketing Program (RTMP) funds from the city. The Bus Fair was also approved for a park rental fee waiver. While the fair attracts visitors to the city, the decision by the City Council to approve the waiver has drawn some scrutiny for being too generous, during a time when funds in the city are low.

Waivers have become an issue

“I know that the town itself – if you keep your finger on the pulse – I think the waivers have become a very prominent issue, because people are aware of it,” said Mayor Brian Cutchen. The budget meetings over the spring have revealed that the city is operating in a deficit and struggling to find revenues. Waiver approvals have provoked strong reactions from committee members. “It’s going to get to a point, where to solve the deficit that we have, we’re going to have to cut back on parks, or whatever…” said the Mayor. “If we had the revenue from those fee waivers, that would really go a long way to helping in that situation.”

At a City Council meeting on January 19, the Mayor recommended offering $7,500 from TRT funds and $2,500 from RTMP funds to The Bus Fair. He recommended a fee waiver not be approved. In a 4-1 vote, Council approved $10,000 in TRT funds, $2,500 in RTMP funds, and approved the park rental fee waiver for $5,900.

Councilor Dirk Tarman, who voted in favor of the fee waiver, pointed out several factors in his decision.

Double booking compounded the waiver issue

“The city had double booked events so there was a screw-up in the booking,” said Councilor Tarman. In addition to The Bus Fair, the city had confirmed the reservation for use of the entirety of Greenwaters Park to the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinders event, a 5-day bike event race with a two-day stop at the park. In a video to the City Council in January, The Bus Fair founder, Brock Butterfield, informed the City Council of the new challenges facing the event organizers.

“Both events need the entire park and have been planning our events since late summer of last year,” said Mr. Butterfield in the video. “With permits, attendee flights, lodging already booked, our only option is to co-exist in Greenwaters at this point.” Mr. Butterfield said that the city’s mistake in booking the park for two events is “costing each event loss in potential ticket sales and added expenses, and new logistical headaches with sharing Greenwaters Park due to the limited space and attendee capacity.” The Oregon Trail Gravel Grinders is receiving a $2,000 discount, and paying the city $1,000 for its 2-day use of Greenwaters Park.

City created the dilemma

Mr. Tarman saw this as a reason to waive the fee. “It was our fault as the city, we created the problem, it seemed fair,” said Mr. Tarman. He explained that he was a brand new council member and was told it was common to waive fees. He also expressed that he didn’t know how it would affect everything else.

“I think my opinion has changed now that we went through the budget cycle,” said Mr. Tarman. “I have a better understanding of where the money is lacking and where it needs to be, I don’t think it’s right to waive all fees.” He added that knowing what he knows now, he would have approved TRT and RTMP funds, but only a partial waiver of the park rental fee.

Kinyon: “park fee waivers for all…”

Councilor Dawn Kinyon voted to grant all the funds and the park fee waiver for a variety of reasons, including that The Bus Fair has proven to be successful in drawing people to Oakridge. Councilor Kinyon said the event’s organizers followed all the guidelines for applying for funds and that the double booking of the park factored strongly in her decision. In an email, Councilor Kinyon wrote, “But in general I will continue supporting park fee waivers for all as long as we allow them because I feel it would be wrong to say yes to one group and no to another,” said Councilor Kinyon.

Attempts to reach Councilor Bjarnson and Councilor Coker by phone were not successful.

Bus Fair by the numbers

An Oakridge resident who spoke off the record, thought the waiver was given unwisely. The resident believed the City Council was generous due to the “cool” factor of the bus fair and that it was impressed by the ample amount of data provided by The Bus Fair in a report following its inaugural event in 2019. The report was robust with data and included a breakdown of event costs.

The report listed the number of attendees who came to Oakridge for the event in 2019 (1,229, not including kids). It presented the amount of money invested back into the city through things like purchases at the hardware store, hiring the local police department for crowd and traffic control, paid volunteer positions and more ($7,500.93). Surveys administered during the event asked people if they had been to Oakridge before (just under 45% had never been here) and whether attendees planned to buy groceries in town (68.1% said Yes).

“The bus fair, by far, has always had the most complete and information-filled applications for RTMP,” said City Administrator James Cleavenger. Mr. Cleavenger said The Bus Fair’s application included where visitors were coming from and whether they were staying in the city’s hotels or Airbnb’s.

Taxes go to support tourism

Mr. Cleavenger explained that TRT funds and RTMP funds are there to support events that promote tourism in the area and attract people to the places and activities Oakridge offers. The TRT funds are especially for events that will create hotel stays and Cleavenger said the bus fair definitely does that. Between the several events for the weekend including The Bus Fair, he expects the city’s hotels to fill up.

On display at a budget committee meeting on May 15 was frustration at the way waivers are approved. Attendees commented that there needs to be an end to “handouts”, that it hurts the parks, and that there seemed to be special treatment of some events and organizations, while others pay full price. According to Mr. Cleavenger, park fees, when they are collected, fund power costs and general park upkeep.

Bus Fair paying their share?

According to Mr. Cleavenger, The Bus Fair is using the waiver to pay for the park during the event days – Thursday through Sunday – and for parking at the Oakridge Industrial Park (OIP) lot from Friday – Sunday. However, The Bus Fair is independently paying for use of the park on Tuesday, June 20, and Wednesday, June 21 for attendees who show up early. Additionally, the Bus Fair is paying for space in OIP for those who want to participate in Linger Longer, an option for attendees who want to stay from June 26 – June 30.

According to Mr. Butterfield’s 14-page memo to City Council, the total cost to produce The Bus Fair is estimated to be over $36,000. The support from the city totals $18,400. Depending on the time of purchase and the level of access, tickets to the event range from $16 – $200.

The Bus Fair is a good thing, but…

There isn’t debate that The Bus Fair brings people to Oakridge. The conversation is just how much Oakridge should offer to these events and organizers. The mayor points out July’s Wildfire Safety Night as an event that would deem a waiver. It is solely for the benefit of the city, says the mayor, and not a money-making venture. The event was approved for a waiver at the April 20 council meeting. At that meeting, three waivers were granted including one for Go Beyond Racing, a race in August held at Greenwaters Park.

“In the case of The Bus Fair, it does bring in a good number of people for the weekend, I thought that [TRT and RTMP funds] was a valid expenditure, excessive, but valid,” said the Mayor when asked why he recommended TRT and RTMP funds, but not the waiver. “In the case of the fees, that’s just lost revenue for the city. And given our current financial situation, there was no way I could possibly condone giving away revenue when we are in such a difficult position.” 

The Bus Fair team was contacted for a comment via email for this article. The team provided the 2019 report and offered to speak after the event this weekend.

Kate Dolan is a freelance writer with experience as a general assignment reporter and copywriter. She is an a cappella singer and enjoys playing soccer.

 

 

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