Creative ideas for boosting the local economy emerged as Ashland Chamber of Commerce and City of Ashland representatives sat down to talk about how they could work together more cooperatively.




The city government and chamber of commerce have a long history of partnership, said Chamber President Graham Lewis.




"The chamber bought the first water wagon for the city so people coming downtown wouldn't have to breathe dust," Lewis told assembled representatives during a Tuesday night Ashland City Council study session.




The city currently shares one-third of its lodging tax with the chamber, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and other groups that support economic and cultural development.




The chamber will receive $255,074 for the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1, to promote economic development and tourism. OSF will get $166,699, while smaller groups will split $149,453.




Tension between the chamber and City Council developed in recent years after some councilors asked for greater accountability from the chamber on how it spends its lodging tax dollars.




The chamber has since provided extensive reports to the city. Among other actions, it also began marketing Ashland as a kid-friendly town where people can relocate their businesses and families.




As for new endeavors, Ashland Community Development Director David Stalheim could lead efforts to draft an economic development strategy for Ashland.




Stalheim, who was hired late last year, helped create an economic development plan for Wenatchee, Wash., where he previously worked.




"We had an uncoordinated response from different agencies. There wasn't really a coordinated vision for where the community wanted to go for economic development," he said.




The city hired a Denver-based think tank, Center for the New West, to help craft an economic development strategy.




The strategy included plans for Wenatchee's under-used waterfront along the Columbia River, Stalheim said.




In Ashland, undeveloped land north of the railroad tracks and on the former Croman Mill site, located on Mistletoe Road off Tolman Creek Road, could be used to spur economic growth and diversification.




The chamber has been coordinating talks among the Croman Mill site's owners, city officials and an expanding local company, Plexis Healthcare Systems.




The City Council earmarked money to create master plans for the Croman and railroad properties. The city also received a state grant for Croman site planning.




But the city lacks funds to develop an overall economic development plan, City Administrator Martha Bennett said.




Raising the city's 7 percent lodging tax could be one method for paying for the work, she said.




Dennis Slattery, a chamber member and representative from Southern Oregon University's School of Business, said it would be unfortunate to start the economic development planning process by creating a wedge issue with talk of raising the tax.




Representatives of the Ashland Bed and Breakfast Network and the Oregon Lodging Association have already spoken out against any tax increase.




Slattery recommended that the City Council invite lodging representatives to come and talk directly about their issues and concerns.




"The best way of dealing with it is to go to them proactively," he said.




If the city raises its lodging tax, 70 percent of the money must be used to promote tourism under state law.




Bennett said the city could collect data to see if there is a spike in rooms sold during special events and festivals.




That could help reassure lodging industry members that tax money spent on tourism promotion is benefiting them.




The chamber is working on a number of events to ease Ashland's economic cycle, which booms during the summer and wanes in the spring and fall. Holiday shopping and the December "Festival of Light" provides some relief for businesses in winter.




In August, chamber representatives are traveling to Portland for that city's "Bite of Oregon" event. The food and drink festival attracts 65,000 people, said Chamber Executive Director Sandra Slattery.




Festival-goers can enter a contest to win a free weekend trip to Ashland. Their contact information will be entered into a database so that the chamber can send them marketing information, she said.




Members of the lodging and restaurant industries in Ashland are working to develop off-season packages that can be offered over the Internet, Slattery said.




The chamber also is working to organize events and festivals for Ashland's slow seasons.




The local economy is sluggish after the Oregon Shakespeare Festival season closes in October.




In November, the chamber is working on a "Food and Wine Classic" event. Chefs will be challenged to make dishes using local ingredients, Slattery said.




The competition will be similar to contests staged on "Iron Chef," the television program that requires chefs to whip up meals using surprise ingredients.




The chamber is promoting February, another slow time of year, as the "Month of Romance," Slattery said.




City Councilor Cate Hartzell said promoting year-round tourism is not really diversifying the economy because it will still be based on tourism. She said some residents also want a break during the year from tourists.




But Councilor Kate Jackson said since Ashland already has an infrastructure of hotels and restaurants in place, it makes sense to increase tourism during the slow seasons.




The meeting of chamber and city representatives ended on a positive note, with those in attendance planning on more discussions.




"This is the kind of study session I've been looking for, where we can just sit down and talk," said Councilor David Chapman.




"We need more of it," agreed Dennis Slattery.




Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.