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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on August 6th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 23 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 20, Issue 23

Emergency funding keeps Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau afloat through August

By William D'Urso

When Solvang Interim City Attorney Chip Wullbrandt looked over the contract with the Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau, he couldn’t understand it.

“It didn’t look like a lawyer had written it,” he said. 

Wullbrandt considered the four-year tourism contract the city had with Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau through 2022 to be void. It had to be renegotiated, he said, and the city planned cuts to the funding it allocated. Wullbrandt said the same about the two-year contract the city had with the Solvang Chamber of Commerce through the end of the 2019-20 fiscal year. 

“They’re at least awkward,” he said of both contracts. “They really didn’t work, and certainly didn’t work as multi-year contracts.”

The Solvang City Council voted to renegotiate both contracts during its June 24 meeting, to reduce the city’s funding to the visitors bureau from the requested $880,000 to $600,000, and to slash the city’s contribution to the chamber in half to $150,000. Wullbrandt, City Mayor Ryan Toussaint, and the rest of the city then began a “renegotiation” of terms with the two organizations. 

The decision resulted in a contentious and confusing back-and-forth between city officials and the organizations that has yet to be resolved.

On July 3, Wullbrandt said, Chamber of Commerce President Charles Warner made a threat of litigation to City Manager Ryan Gassaway. The city, believing there was a threat of litigation, held a July 8 closed session meeting on the contracts. 

The chamber of commerce denied the allegation and told the Sun that it wasn’t involved in any contract negotiations.

During that July 8 session, Wullbrandt was “authorized to provide notice that the old contracts were terminated as of June 24 and new contracts would need to be negotiated,” according to an email from city spokesperson Kady Fleckenstein. 

Toussaint said an underlying fear is that the visitors bureau would use city funds to subsidize local political campaigns or litigation against the city. He said no new contract can allow litigation or campaign spending by the visitors bureau.

Fleckenstein said that on July 16, the city offered the visitors bureau $600,000 for a year-long contract with the city, including an at-will component that would allow cancellation with a 30-day notice. It was flatly rejected. The visitors bureau made a counter offer on July 23—six months for $300,000—that also fell flat because it excluded the at-will clause, she said.

The visitors bureau then issued a press release on Aug. 1 saying that it would have to lay off staff and shut down the bureau’s website due to a cut in funding from the city. That same day, the city issued a statement in response, announcing that emergency funding in the amount of $25,893 had been sent to the bureau one day earlier. 

“August is a busy month for tourism in Solvang, and keeping the Visitors Center open during that time was a priority for us all,” Toussaint said in an email.

Although a representative of the visitors bureau wasn’t available for an interview, its chief financial officer, Jesse Osehan Verkler, wrote in an email to the Sun that “talks with the city of Solvang continue … .”

The emergency funding is enough to get the bureau through the end of the month, a time Toussaint called “crucial” for the planning and promotion of the Solvang Grape Stomp and JuleFest.

—William D’Urso




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