Morro Bay’s Visitor Center was closed permanently in April when the Chamber of Commerce and City ended the contract that had the Chamber staffing and running the center for the past 5 years. Right now, the City of Morro Bay does not have a visitor’s center, part of the City’s efforts to discourage tourism during the coronavirus pandemic and economic shutdown. It’s unknown what the City will do about providing visitor information once the shutdown is lifted.
Photo by Neil Farrell

With the coronavirus pandemic causing the near cessation of tourism in Morro Bay, the City finds itself without a visitor’s center for the first time in decades.

When the City adopted shelter-at-home orders on March 19, all non-essential businesses were shuttered — the visitor’s center included — and like turning off a light bulb, the town’s tourism trade went dark.

The Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce and the City had already been discussing the future of the visitor’s center, currently located at 695 Harbor St. The Chamber has run the Visitor’s Center since at least the early 1990s, excepting about 3 years when the Independent Tourism Bureau (an arm of the Tourism Business Improvement District Board) took it over. The City has always contributed funds to it.

The visitor’s center was housed in an old farmhouse in the 800 block of Main St. in the 1990s, and in the early 2000s was moved to the Boatyard Center in the 800 block of Embarcadero, where it stayed for several years before being moved again to a one-time gas station and former real estate office at the corner of Morro Bay Boulevard and Morro Avenue.

That move up the hill in January 2013 came when the Tourism Bureau took over and was a strategic spot between the waterfront and Downtown.

In October 2015, the City re-awarded the contract to the Chamber for $50,000 a year and the visitor’s center was moved to Harbor Street, where the Chamber Office had been since the start of 2013.

The Chamber’s contract for the visitor’s center was set to expire in June but the Chamber opted out in early April.

“With the closure of the Center,” City Manager Scott Collins said in a staff report, “and the many unknowns related to the pandemic, the City and Chamber terminated the contract.

“Staff recommends looking into the Visitor Center options once we have a better grasp of the pandemic, our financial position, and a sense of how best to use our limited dollars for tourism purposes.”

Before the pandemic, the City was looking into moving the center down to a storefront at 595 Embarcadero, in a spot vacated last year by The Paddleboard Company.

The City asked for a proposal from the Chamber to move the visitor’s center and the Chamber worked up designs and budgets. That all got put on hold when the virus hit but was already in trouble after the TBID Advisory Board gave it a lukewarm reception over the costs.

Over a 5-year contract, the Chamber’s proposal including some $37,500 of remodeling costs, ran to an estimated $157,000 the first year, with future years at $121,000 for a total of $664,000. The City would continue with its $50,000 a year ($250,000 over 5 years) with the TBID picking up the rest of the costs, some $414,000.

Chamber CEO Erica Crawford told Estero Bay News, “The decision to terminate our agreement was not made lightly, and was not made without its own challenging consequences.

“With sensitivity to the economic damage that has been caused to our community’s businesses, with deep appreciation of the damage that this crisis is doing to the City’s finances and its organization, and because the center was closed due to the Governor’s shelter-at-home order, the Chamber terminated its contract to operate a Visitor Center for the City of Morro Bay.”

The handful of employees that manned the visitor’s center, some of whom have been with the center since it was down in the Boatyard Center, are now out of work.

“Our dedicated and brilliant staff working in the Visitor Center has been laid off and our existing Chamber staff has fielded hundreds of phone calls from future visitors over the last two months,” Crawford said. “It is clear that the demand to visit Morro Bay remains strong and will factor into our economy post-COVID, and that’s a good omen for Morro Bay’s economic future.”

In the Chamber’s proposal, Crawford noted that in 2019 the center recorded 5,072 total visitors, a decrease from 2016 by some 8,225. Crawford said the cost per inquiry was about $10, which is too high.

The number of visitors coming in has slowed considerably since it moved to Harbor Street.

The City believes this may be a reflection of a change in how tourists gather information, turning instead to the many travel websites accessible online and via smart phone. That realization has led to questions about whether the old model is still relevant.

Crawford said, “Until just before this crisis we had been working collaboratively in pursuit of a new model to deliver our services more efficiently and effectively. We hope to pick up that mantle as soon as recovery allows.”

Meanwhile, the Chamber’s annual lease for space in the building at 695 Harbor was renewed for $1 a year for two years. In exchange, the Chamber will continue with an economic development program it’s been running for the City since 2015. It includes increased services in terms of that economic development program in exchange for a raise in funding.

“Approval of the proposed modifications to the economic development services contract with the Chamber,” Collins’ report said, ” will result in annual increase of $16,000 per year, to account for the expanded scope of services being provided by the Chamber. The current annual expense for that contract is $62,000. This proposal would increase that contract to $78,000 per year [$6,500 a month].”

The contract changes, “include the Chamber providing additional services to our local business community,” Collins said, “partnering at the regional level for state and federal assistance and assisting the City and business community in the long-term recovery efforts, in addition to the services provided to the City prior to COVID-19.”

But the Chamber hasn’t waited for a new contract before helping local businesses survive the pandemic and what’s expected to be a terrible summer for business in town. Crawford said they’ve been helping local businesses in conjunction with others.

“As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to evolve,” Crawford said, “we recognize the pandemic will have lasting economic effects on our regional business community. The Central Coast Coalition of Chambers, of which the MB Chamber is a part, has sent a survey to the region’s business community so we can better understand how COVID-19 is affecting business, and how each Chamber in the Coalition can best support and advocate for their members in the coming weeks and months.

“Questions about EIDL and PPP are included in the survey. Anecdotally, there are local businesses whose federal assistance has landed but we do not yet have a complete nor accurate accounting of how many.”

Asked if she had any good news for EBN’s readers, Crawford said, “The Chamber has been sharing ‘Rock Solid Stories’ of resilience and adaptation in our local business community. These stories are written by Chamber staff, shared a few times a week via social media, and can be found on the Chamber’s website at: www.morrochamber.org/rock-solid-stories.”

And they of course look forward to when the pandemic ends and the world returns to somewhat normal. “The Chamber looks forward to working again in partnership with the City to engage visitors at some future date uncertain,” Crawford said.

Editors Note:
In addition to social media and the Chamber’s website, Estero Bay News will share some of the articles in the Rock Solid Stories series.