Western Report: Galena’s focus on tourism sucking the public well dry

As Illinois cities go, the city of Galena is in a very unique position. And, with more than 1 million visitors a year, it ranks right behind Springfield as the top tourist destinations in Illinois outside Chicago.

Yet, with this very positive statistic, it is a double-edged sword for the 3,500 residents of Galena.

The large influx of tourists year in and year out greatly adds to the sales tax revenue the city of Galena does receive. However, since the city does not get a penny of revenue from the approximately 550 hotel, motel, inn and bed & breakfast rooms, Galena’s share of the sales tax is approximately 1 percent of the purchases of food, drink and souvenirs. The big-ticket items are usually bought by residents and other local customers who shop Wal-Mart and other Galena stores.

Another benefit the tourists bring is jobs. Tourism in Galena is a huge industry, and provides many jobs for local residents. The problem, however, is that the majority of these jobs are seasonal and do not provide family-raising incomes. Tourism in Galena has allowed for business owners and industry management positions to benefit so there is an upper level of high-income-producing jobs. Again, a double-edged sword.

Tourism has also caused an additional tax burden on Galena residents. Having so many visitors each year, the city has to always put on its very best face. It must constantly update and upgrade its public areas downtown, and provide services for not just 3,500 residents, but for as many as 40,000 people a weekend. This is felt in resident checkbooks when we are taxed for our recent multi-million dollar downtown renovation (which included vast amounts of dollars to keep and enhance the historic aspect of the city), and the building of a waste treatment facility that is capable of handling more than 10 times the amount of waste produced by full-time residents.

The residents do benefit from this attention to the tourist, and we are proud of our city and the way it looks for the company that comes to visit. We enjoy the historic upkeep and even the beautiful bike trail and boat dock. Some of these things the residents did not pay for directly because, as the council points out, they came from federal and state grants (where does that money come from again?), but the additional upkeep and maintenance from city staff is a local tax burden.

This burden will be felt again soon when the residents will be forced to make a decision about whether to raise our own sales tax (some will be shared by visitors but, again, the big-ticket items are usually not purchased by them) through a November referendum. This additional tax is needed to fix the many Galena streets that are in need of serious repair. Again, some as a result of the increased volume of traffic over the normal wear of 3,500 residents.

Anyway, maybe the city should consider taking this tourist bull by the horns and meeting this resident tax burden head-on. Right now, there is a hotel tax of 11 percent on every overnight room dollar spent in Galena. Currently, it is split with 6 percent going to the state and 5 percent going to the JoDaviess County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). The CVB portion is close to $1 million and has to be spent to promote tourism throughout the whole county (the County Board gets to keep 10 percent of the funds for administration). The bottom line to Galena to pay for some of the costs that the city has due to tourism—$0.00.

The Galena City Council should look into doing its own tourist promotion. The CVB has an inflated staff with five different managers or directors, and I believe it can be done with half that—especially if you were just marketing Galena. The CVB is being run with the water from the Galena wells, with the exception of other large CVB funders Eagle Ridge and Chestnut Mountain. Let them fund the CVB for the county since they are private, profit-making companies, and let Galena fund Galena—before the well runs dry.

John Huschik is a free-lance writer from Galena and covers the Jo Daviess County political scene.

From the Aug. 2-8, 2006, issue

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