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Tourism could get a boost if planned merger between EDC, visitors bureau goes ahead

WILLMAR -- Local tourism promotion could receive a boost under a proposal to merge the tourism committee of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission with the Willmar Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

A proposal to integrate the two entities was announced Thursday.

The joint operating board of the EDC also voted Thursday to recommend that the EDC's governing board approve the plan.

Combining the tourism committee and the visitors bureau would help streamline operations and improve the ability of both organizations to support and promote tourism, officials said.

The EDC and the Convention and Visitors Bureau already do many things together, such as sharing the cost of marketing, said Betty Bollig, a member of the EDC operating board and its tourism committee.

"Our goals are fairly similar for what we want to accomplish for tourism in Kandiyohi County," she said.

But by combining, they could do even more to promote and market the Willmar lakes area as a destination for travelers, said Cecil Meyer, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau board.

"Are we going to be stronger? Yes, I believe we're going to be quite a bit stronger by joining the two," he said. "It can only enhance the organization."

The proposed merger calls for a joint structure and business plan. The EDC's annual allocation for its tourism committee, which is $36,000 this year, would flow through into the new joint entity.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau also would broaden its mission to address tourism and travel as a whole.

Traditionally, the bureau has used its revenue, most of which comes from the local lodging tax, to concentrate on bringing in customers for the lodging industry. In recent years, however, this emphasis has widened to include a focus on bringing in conferences, sports events and leisure travel.

"We're encompassing a lot more than 'heads on beds.' So I think the fit today is greater than it has been in the past," Meyer said.

The EDC's operating board was the first group to hear a presentation on the proposal.

Reaction was positive.

"I like what I see. ... It makes sense as we move ahead," said board member Ron Erpelding.

The plan will be presented to the Convention and Visitors Bureau board April 21 and to the EDC's governing board April 23. Approval also will be needed from the Willmar City Council.

If the merger is approved, a work session then would take place, during which issues such as budgeting, goals and organizational structure would be tackled, said Beth Fischer, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Jean Spaulding, assistant director of the Economic Development Commission and the agency's staff person assigned to its tourism committee, said feedback will be sought as the merger process goes forward.

"It's not something that's going to happen overnight, and it's certainly not going to happen in a vacuum. There's going to be plenty of opportunity for input," she said.