|By Denny Boyles, The Fresno Bee,
Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jun. 27, 2007 --Looking beyond the recent troubles of the Fresno Convention and Visitors Bureau, the new president of the organization sees Fresno County as a region rich with assets that no one knows how to promote.
The answer, according to Stan Oken, is simple: If you tell tourists and visitors what Fresno County has to offer, they will come see for themselves whether it's true.
It's a vision for the future that the resort owner and former county supervisor wants to share with the rest of Fresno County, Oken told members of The Bee's editorial board Tuesday.
Oken won't be alone in his efforts.
Al Smith, president of the Greater Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce and a bureau board member, said Oken was chosen for the bureau's top spot because of his desire to move forward instead of focusing on recent problems, including an embezzlement scandal and a dispute over a printing contract that resulted in one board member's resignation.
"Things are starting to settle down now. We have new board members that don't have the old allegiances or the old issues," Smith said. "We wanted someone with the political capital to deal with the city, the county and SMG. Stan was that person."
Smith said there is no effort at the bureau to ignore past problems. But, he said, the group has to move forward.
In his one-year term, Oken hopes to reinvent a group that he sees as fragmented and unfocused. That may mean reducing the board from its current 28 members to a more efficient size.
He wants to market Fresno County as the Bay Area's Palm Springs, shift focus from what the county doesn't have to what assets it can sell, and expand the bureau's role by discovering what the group should be doing but isn't.
"I'm after the opportunities we are losing by not telling people what Fresno County has to offer," Oken said. "I've done research, and over the last eight years, Fresno County has been outperformed in tourism and visitors by many counties with less to offer."
To accomplish his goals, Oken admits he will need a lot of help. Tourism and visitor-related industries must agree with the vision and fully support it, and a new source of funding must be found for an agency that currently relies primarily on city funds to operate.
"CVB needs an alternative source of funding," Oken said. "We can't do business under the current funding method forever because you never know if you will have money more than three months down the road."
Oken, whose term begins next week, said that while tourism and visitor-related industries are responsible for 12,000 county jobs and produce $9 million in room taxes each year, they have not been the focus of any economic development efforts by the county or local cities.
"The visitor industry should be at the top of our economic development strategy," Oken said. "It's so much easier to promote existing assets in tourism than to convince a company to relocate here."
Among the assets that he believes Fresno underpromotes are the numerous lakes and rivers in the area, the three national parks, the Save Mart Center, Chukchansi Park and even the hot summers Fresnans experience.
"Palm Springs has sold their heat, why can't we do the same?" Oken said."Look at Friant Road. You have a park, a river, a trail and golf courses. Those are huge assets. Friant should be a resort area."
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