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Candidates call for more tourism funds

Utah's gubernatorial candidates may have different views on some issues, but not regarding tourism promotion.

On Tuesday, Democrat Scott Matheson Jr. and Republican Jon Huntsman Jr.'s running mate, Gary Herbert, presented similar approaches to help kick-start that part of the state's economy.

"I think that's actually a good sign, that there really is some consensus on this issue about where we see the state moving in terms of economic development," Matheson said of the similarities of views while speaking at the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau's annual tourism conference at the Salt Palace. "It's a core part of all of our plans."

Both said local governments had strong tourism efforts but that the state has been lacking. Both said increased tourism funding should be a priority, as should better cooperation between local and state efforts.

"Where we've falling short is at the state level," Matheson said. "And I'm not saying anything that's terribly controversial at this point. I think most people are in agreement on that point. The real question is where we go from here.

"It's not a question of whether we fund tourism promotion or whether we make up our deficit relative to what other states are doing. It's really a question of how to do it. We've got to be committed to having a unified and focused message about our state, and we've got to capitalize on all the assets that we have."

Matheson suggested a tourism promotion fund of "a sufficient amount to be competitive." He noted that $10 million to $15 million — amounts proposed during the last legislative session — are "a starting point."

Hebert said Huntsman has discussed a $50 million fund. "We've fallen woefully short. The state has a role to play, and as we work on state branding, the state needs to step up and invest the dollars," he said.

"Now, we can argue whether you invest a dollar and get back four, or you invest a dollar and get back eight — I don't know what the exact return is, it may fluctuate some — but we do know you get a return on investment. And in a time when we have an austere budget, it would seem that is the place we ought to spend some money and get a return on our dollars and provide more dollars."

Herbert, who faulted past governors for not making tourism funding a high priority, said Utah has not "tapped into what the potential is, and we would like to change that."

Matheson said many tourists and convention visitors have fallen in love with Utah, often later relocating themselves or their businesses here.

"And that is an important part of how economic development happens," he said. "We have strong anecdotal evidence. My guess is that if we could ever really study that carefully, what we'd find is conventions and conferences in Utah have a direct and powerful link to economic development — permanent economic development as well."