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  • Caryn Bosson

Arguing for a vision: Ojai’s tourism conflict

Just as nonprofits need a clear vision to steer towards, so do cities. Twenty years ago I coordinated a process for my home community, the Ojai Valley, resulting in a vision that changed its trajectory. Next Sunday, November 19, I’ll be sharing the implications of this process for today’s local debate over tourism as a panelist at the Ojai Chautauqua.

Twenty years ago: Preparing for a Youth Quake

A vision requires looking ahead to a desired future. Then begins the work of finding a pathway to get there.

In the mid-1990s the League of California Cities was warning its member cities of a “Youth Quake” -- a demographic bulge in the number of teenagers, sometimes called the “baby boomlet.” Its message was: build more juvenile detention facilities or create more after school programs, because there are going to be more teens on the street.

Ojai’s civic leaders, namely City Manager Andy Belknap, Mayor Steve Olsen, and Police Chief Jim Barrett, decided to be proactive and create a Youth Master Plan. In 1996 they hired me as coordinator.

For a full year I conducted focus groups, community input forums, surveys, and compiled thousands of responses. I spoke with the faith community, sports coaches, diverse parents, teachers, business people, grandparents, and most importantly -- teenagers. Our large Steering Committee hand-compiled 3,000 paper surveys, and digested the results of all of this input. The result: the Ojai Valley Youth Master Plan was created. In 1997 the City, County and School District joined together and seeded a nonprofit organization, the Ojai Valley Youth Foundation, to make sure the plan didn’t sit on a shelf.

Because of the clear vision, strong political leadership, and broad inclusiveness of this process, we became unstoppable. Over the ten years I was the Youth Foundation’s Executive Director, we involved thousands of teenagers, their families, and community members in a process of “weaving the fabric of our community together so tightly no child could fall through.” We developed youth leaders, mentors of all ages, an array of after-school and youth development programs and attracted millions of dollars in funding, including a million dollar grant to be a statewide demonstration site from The California Wellness Foundation. Thousands of teenagers and their families were involved, and the organization continues to this day.

What does this have to do with tourism?

Just as twenty years ago there was a Youth Quake, today Ojai is experiencing what one could call a Tourism Quake. At least that’s the experience -- albeit not in those words -- of many who feel Ojai’s tourism has gotten out of hand. Others argue that tourists are the lifeblood of the local economy and more are to be welcomed. While some adamantly want to “Keep Ojai Lame,” and prevent the town’s character from changing because of all the visitors, others adamantly want to keep their economic opportunities intact and growing. The often angry divisions have resulted in the defeat of a source of funding to operate a Visitors Bureau and underwrite marketing of lodging facilities.

Authors of the Estes Valley Plan in Colorado had this to say in 2004, which I believe still holds true:

“The crisis of our time is not so much a lack of will...It is more the absence of a shared vision that can capture the imagination of people and of an enthusiastic commitment to work for the common good. Without a positive image of the future, nations and communities perish. Without enthusiasm and sharing of meaning, passage to the future becomes less interesting and much more difficult and unpredictable.”

As an Ojai Chautauqua panelist I will be arguing that now’s the time to build that shared vision around tourism, which is connected to so much else. The Ojai Valley Master Plan process is one template (albeit with a much less contentious issue), and there are other proven roadmaps to follow, including the inspiring Community Heart & Soul model.

The bottom line is...the triple bottom line

A broad vision is mandatory. The tourism debate can’t be solved by looking at the problems too narrowly or they seem intractable. Traffic, jobs, culture -- all must be considered as part of a greater whole.

That’s where the principles of sustainability come in. This involves looking at tourism through a lens that incorporates a “triple bottom line” or “the three E’s.” Solutions must add up not only Economically, but Environmentally, and for social Equity as well.

For example, traffic is a major concern and the perception is that tourists are clogging downtown’s main street so that locals can’t get through. A triple bottom line solution provides economic opportunity while improving the environment and benefitting the community.

What could this look like? One idea is providing an electric van service for day trippers from a Park & Ride lot, which could even be at the closest Amtrak station. This would create a local business opportunity that could potentially expand into creative electric van tour itineraries. Another idea is bicycle sharing, which would tie into Ojai’s existing vision for more bike-friendly streets and create more critical mass for this transportation mode. Another idea is creating longer term stays at tourist facilities so visitors aren’t using the roads several times a day, which could create revenue opportunities for cultural, wellness and spiritual organizations.

These are just some initial possibilities, with many more if there’s sufficient community involvement in the conversation...and a vision.

I’m looking forward to sharing these thoughts on November 19th and encourage Ojai residents to consider joining the conversation by purchasing tickets now.

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