SIERRA VISTA — A meeting held at Cochise College in March called by Mark Schmitt, director of the small business development center, led to the birth of a stratagem meant to boost tourism numbers and the county economy.

Brent Davis, current executive director of Cornerstone Building Foundation, was invited to attend the meeting which provided the opportunity to meet Tom Heshion, owner of a new development in the county called Equines and Wine.

Many at the meeting talked extensively about the need to attract more visitors to the county, he said. In speaking with a few other people at the meeting, a plan was hatched to create a new economic development endeavor with the focus on tourism based on the successful Visit Tucson foundation.

After a dozen meetings with hospitality, tourism and economic development leaders, the newly formed “Visit Southern Arizona” (VSA) became a reality. Davis is the acting director and Sierra Vista businesswomen Vera Gates-Williams, owner of AGW Entertainment Management Group and Colleen Rodefer, sales director of the Holiday Inn Express, are serving as secretary and treasurer of the temporary board.

These temporary board members will serve through June of next year, when it is anticipated the membership will vote in a new 23–member board representing every city and a wide diversity of businesses, Davis said.

“We need to identify a champion in each city and ask them to serve on the board,” he added.

The group was created to assist promoting the county in partnership with the Cochise County Tourism Council as a destination marketing organization. As with any organization, funds are needed to run offices and advertising campaigns and websites. This could be achieved through donations of individuals or businesses or membership dues or even with funds from the municipal bed taxes collected around the county for lodging, Davis said.

“We’re working with six municipalities in the county,” he said. “If they all pooled their resources, and each city donated just two percent of the bed tax collected to VSA, we could have over $1 million to work with in promoting the county.”

The county and cities could also participate through the budgetary process and provide tax dollars to help the effort. Tombstone and Benson have shown great interest, as has Sierra Vista, he added.

Cities could also consider raising the bed tax to pay for the new advertising campaign, he suggested.

So why start another tourism-based platform when so many exist now?

“Nobody in Tucson and Phoenix knows where Cochise County is,” he noted. “We want to change that. We want to enhance the county’s image.”

The local hotel and restaurant industries want more exposure and more support, Gates-Williams remarked. “This will give them that. And, it benefits more than one area. Businesses will recognize the importance of the strategy and realize everybody can be a part of this.”

Rodefer added, “But, it’s not just those businesses, it includes retail as well. By pooling all our money we can do a lot more. This is a regional effort to get people to come visit Cochise County.”

Also, a part of the mix are the many events which draw tourism to towns such as sporting events like the Bisbee 1000 Great Stairclimb and Sierra Vista’s disc golf tournaments and there are the numerous concerts and artist gatherings which could all benefit from pooled resources.

Though no formal presentation has been made to any of the governing bodies, a proposal is being developed and will be rolled out in Sierra Vista possibly by the fall, Davis said.

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