The Ashland City Council has elevated tourism promotion as its own category for a city grant program, while also adopting a grant application scoring system that levels the playing field for sustainability groups trying to win money.

The Ashland City Council has elevated tourism promotion as its own category for a city grant program, while also adopting a grant application scoring system that levels the playing field for sustainability groups trying to win money.

Previously, the city awarded grants to nonprofit groups that promoted economic development, cultural activities and sustainability.

Tourism now will be the fourth category for that grant program based on a unanimous decision last week by the City Council.

Nonprofit groups vying for money can win up to 16 points in each of the four categories.

A previously proposed scoring system did not allow groups to win as many points for sustainability as they could win for economic development and cultural activities. Sustainability groups had stepped forward to voice their concerns.

A subcommittee of the Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee will meet in April to divide up $199,501 in economic, cultural, sustainability and tourism grants. Requests for the money always far exceed the amount available during the annual grant-giving process.

City Councilman Russ Silbiger said it makes sense to make tourism the fourth category for the grants. Silbiger, who was part of a committee that helped craft an economic development plan for Ashland, said he has long wanted the town to diversify away from its reliance on tourism, but he has come to recognize its continuing importance.

"It is a big part of who we are and always will be. Maybe I shouldn't fight it so hard. It really is important," Silbiger said.

He said Ashland is finding ways to diversify its tourism offerings. He pointed to Cycle Oregon's plans to bring thousands of bicyclists to Ashland in September as part of that group's annual bike tour in the state.

"That's a whole new breed of tourism," Silbiger said.

Cycle Oregon is coordinating with the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, Southern Oregon University and other groups on its plans to visit Ashland.

City Councilwoman Carol Voisin said Ashland needs to diversify beyond tourism, especially with gas prices expected to rise even further this summer.

Money for the city economic, cultural, sustainability and tourism grants comes from a portion of the city's 9 percent tax on hotel room stays.

For the fiscal year that ends on June 30, the city had $188,758 for the grants. The increase to $199,501 in available grants for next fiscal year comes from a projected rise in hotel tax revenues as the economy continues to recover.

Past grant winners range from the Ashland Independent Film Festival to Rogue Farm Corps to Ashland's Bed and Breakfast Network.

More than $1 million of hotel tax revenue goes to fund city of Ashland operations and programs. The Ashland Chamber of Commerce will receive $297,956 and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will get $110,000 to promote tourism.

The city has long kept its annual grants to the chamber and OSF separated from the grant funding pool that is divided among smaller groups.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.