Tourism is big business in Johnson County. Travelers contributed just over $55 million to our local economy last year and accounted for just over $200 million in local wages.
And tourism for our area continues to grow year after year. In fact, according to recent research by Headwaters Economics, Johnson County is the only Wyoming county outside the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that is classified as a “recreation economy” – a county with an economy closely tied to outdoor recreation and seasonal visitors’ spending.
With declining county valuations, it’s past time for our local city and county leaders to press the Wyoming Legislature to enable new revenue streams based on a tourism economy.
County valuations, the primary source of local government funding rose with the natural gas boom in the early 2000’s. From 1999 to 2009, Johnson County valuations soared from $87 million to over $1.2 billion and money flowed into government coffers.
Since then, the coal bed methane market suffered steep declines and gas production in Johnson County has fallen precipitously. And, while there is potential for future oil development in the county, this cannot happen at current prices.
Converse County has seen a huge oil boom in recent years, and their county is flush with tax dollars. However, our oil is quite a bit deeper and harder to reach. It will take oil prices near $100 per barrel to make development profitable enough to begin drilling again here.
So local government is in a conundrum. Certainly, there are still areas where we don’t spend tax dollars in the most effective way. But Wyoming collects half a billion dollars less today from coal taxes than it did 10 years ago – nearly a third of the state’s entire budget. At some point, continued cuts will begin to impact services. And, the lack of investment in amenities in the county will also adversely impact our quality of life.
Last year, representatives of the tourism industry endorsed additional taxing authority on lodging to fund travel and tourism advertising and marketing. Once again, the Legislature took a pass on a new revenue stream.
Maybe pressure from local officials can spur the Legislature into action.
Locally, the Johnson County Tourism Association, the government organization that allocates bed tax dollars to market our area, has done a great job promoting travel tourism here. Over that past decade, tourism has grown year over year, one clear indicator that JCTA has spent their money wisely.
However, our local bed tax stands at 2 percent. The state allows up to 4 percent to be levied on lodging. It is time for our lodging tax board to consider increasing the bed tax. Remember, tourists pay this tax, not locals. Last year, nearly 80 percent of voters supported extending the lodging tax here.
More tax revenue means more marketing and more tourism dollars that, in turn, will create more jobs to grow our local economy.
There may never be another energy boom here in Johnson County. It’s time we learned to focus on what we’ve got rather than hope for what we’ve not.