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Taxpayers should learn a lesson from 'Twilight'

FORKS, Wash. — If you want economic development from tourism, get someone to use your town as the setting for fiction that makes people act silly.

I have no interest in reading any of the "Twilight" books, but after visiting this town, I now have an appreciation for their international appeal, and for how they can open wallets in ways otherwise unthinkable.

We came here near dusk, just after the visitors center closed. And yet I saw the families eagerly walking along the streets, the young women in particular looking as wide-eyed as Christmas morning. I drove along the self-guided tour promoted by the Chamber of Commerce, stopping at private homes that happen to look like those of characters in the books (the movie actually was filmed in Oregon). I stopped at "Bella's truck" in front of the visitors center to take pictures of people from our family reunion who had asked me to drive them here from our cabin on the coast. I even embarrassed myself by taking photos of family members in front of a Forks police car, apologizing to the officer, who smiled as if to say it happens all the time.

I also spent considerable time in one of the many Twilight-themed gift shops that entrepreneurs have opened in town.

And while all this attention came fortuitously to a small town that just happened to fill author Stephenie Meyer's needs (it's remote, it's wooded and it gets a lot of rain), the extra business hasn't cost taxpayers a dime.

Compare that to the economic benefits of professional soccer, which brought its all-star game to Sandy's Rio Tinto Stadium last week.

Much was made of how good the game was for the local economy. That claim has some truth to it. A Sandy spokeswoman said about one-third of the 20,000 or so people at the game were from out of state. They no doubt spent a lot of money while here.

And Sandy got its name mentioned, at least tangentially, in broadcasts around the world. That does translate into some hard-to-measure boost for the image of the city and state, although, like a good meal, its effects won't last very long.

But the big lie of our sports-crazed culture — a lie that is by no means limited to soccer — is that this boost can fuel an economy. Cabela's or IKEA bring more to the economy consistently than an occasional sporting event. And yet taxpayers are constantly preached to about the financial benefits of sporting events when they are asked to pay for facilities.

Whatever good came from the all-star game has to be weighed against the $45 million public portion of funding for the stadium, plus interest. These include hotel taxes that, even though paid by visitors, make it more difficult to raise revenue for legitimate tourism-related things, even as they make visiting here more expensive. It also includes Sandy's 20-year, $10 million bond, and the $15,000 in bond payments the city decided to forgive just prior to the game.

In Forks, it's all gravy. No local subsidy picks a winner or loser among merchants. City officials have been quoted as saying business is up 1,000 percent since the books and the movie became popular. A gift-shop worker said visitors have come from as far away as Taiwan.

Not bad for a little logging town in the remote mountains of the Olympic Peninsula.

It was all gravy for Preston, Idaho, too, after "Napoleon Dynamite" became a box-office hit. Salt Lake City's East High School and the surrounding area also has had its ladle full since starring as the setting for the "High School Musical" movies.

I don't really know why this is so. Past generations didn't flock to Route 66 after reading "The Grapes of Wrath."

But now I've seen Forks, and I believe.

So, congratulations to Sandy for hosting a good one-time event.

In the future, however, the city may instead wish to sponsor a book-writing contest.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com. Visit his blog at www.deseretnews.com/blogs.