Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
The Oregon coast is a pretty spectacular place, so it’s no wonder it attracts millions of tourists every year. Yet the small communities who make up this rural region aren’t seeing the economic benefits they should be from the booming tourism industry, according to Marcus Hinz, executive director of the Oregon Coast Visitors Association.
I spoke with Hinz about the organization’s efforts to develop the coast’s local food systems, which are inextricably linked to the region’s tourism industry. Enjoy our conversation about how rural Oregon coast communities became the “Banana Republic” of seafood, and how catching tourism dollars, and keeping them local, is essential for rural economies, below.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Claire Carlson, The Daily Yonder: What has been most interesting or surprising to you going into rural Oregon coastal communities as your organization helps build out the region’s tourism and local food systems?
Marcus Hinz: I was born and raised in rural Wisconsin in a dairy and commercial fishing community along the Great Lakes. So, culturally, you know, I feel like I really fit in in rural places. There wasn’t much surprising specifically about this work. It’s also not surprising that there’s a lot of pushback on tourism. You know, you get pretty cozy in these small rural places and then all of a sudden there’s more people visiting than actually live there. I understand that.
What did surprise me though, in our food space, is that when I really dug into the numbers, I learned that visitors spent considerably more on food and food services than they did on any other category, including lodging and outdoor recreation. Along the entire Oregon coast, $840 million per year is spent on food and services. So, each year we have the better part of a billion dollars of new money coming into our very small, rural communities. The largest town here on the Oregon coast is Coos Bay, and that’s about 18,000 people. That’s the size of one neighborhood in Portland, for perspective. So that’s a lot of money.
And then when Covid hit and the trucks stopped coming over the mountain, we learned that the restaurants and food stores started closing not because they couldn’t find workers, but because they couldn’t get inventory. And so when I put two and two together, I was like, wow, our industry is very, very vulnerable to a very long food supply chain. And what that also means is that the people who live here are also equally vulnerable in the food insecurity space because the vast majority of food we’re selling is not produced here. And that’s particularly the case for seafood, ironically.
DY: Can you talk more about that, the fact that seafood is not actually as local as you might think?
MH: There’s a few pretty large seafood companies who are processors, so that means fishers have limited places to land their fish to offload fish. And when they go to those facilities, pretty much all of that fish is bound for commodity wholesale markets on the national and international marketplace. So we’re kind of like a Banana Republic of seafood because none of the infrastructure, or very little of the infrastructure in place, supports smaller volumes of fish going to local establishments. It’s all really just a large supply chain for commodity markets.
Meanwhile, all the seafood we are selling, and it’s in the research, 90% of all the seafood sold and consumed along the Oregon coast is not from Oregon. It’s not from the ports or the ocean that we’re landing fish from. So that was eye-opening. And back to your question, about what was surprising – that is very surprising. And shocking and disappointing and horrifying, right? Like, hey, everybody from Boston, come on over [to the Oregon coast] and get some farmed Atlantic salmon raised right next to you[r home]. That just doesn’t look great from an Oregon tourism marketing point of view.
DY: How have you gone about trying to localize food systems, especially with this tourism angle to make it make more sense in policymakers’ eyes, for example?
MH: Our efforts from tourism are very new – it’s only been a couple years, so I have to qualify with that. We’ve not made tremendous physical progress on the ground yet.
However, we have built quite a few relationships. And the first few years are being spent just etching out that space. You know, having those conversations, hundreds of conversations with the state explaining how [food systems] are our lane for tourism because of that massive food spend by visitors. And then talking with existing food non-governmental organizations, and county economic development agencies, and port districts, explaining why tourism is in that space and building the trust and getting the understanding that this is our space because look at all this money that visitors are spending on food.
So we get the credit, but we also get the responsibility of trying to capture more of those dollars and make sure that they stay here. Because what we are realizing is that if most of the food on the coast that we’re selling is not from here, that means as soon as that dollar hits the cash register, it’s gone because that vendor is reordering food from outside the county and often outside the state of Oregon.
With our estimates, it looks like every year, the coast is losing about $252 million in economic leakage because of that reordering. [Local and state agencies] have put tens or hundreds of millions of dollars into marketing research and then tens of millions into marketing programs. And the visitor comes to the Oregon coast and we do all the work to curate a culinary experience, and then the visitor finally spends the money, and 30% of it just leaves. So, you know, that’s our conversation with economic development agencies, about “a penny saved is a penny earned”, and right now, it’s just leaving.
It’s taken us a couple years to build local partnerships and now we’re starting to pull money into resources, some shovel-ready projects we’ve been detailing with community colleges and workforce boards with ports. There’s a lot of collaboration now. There’s a lot of motion around like, let’s do this together. And that’s kind of where we’re at at this point, two, three years into it.
DY: How are these local projects funded?
MH: It’s a mishmash. We’re funded primarily with the state of Oregon lodging tax. So we get a contract every two years with the State Tourism Commission, and we negotiate a work scope. And then from there we also do our own grant writing. We landed a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We’ve landed some smaller grants as well. And then our association does generate some of our own money through fees for service marketing or in the past, membership dues and fees. But I think we’re maybe gonna move away from that. And then a lot of it is like, local partners have their own money, we can commingle and leverage things, or they just have resources.
DY: It sounds like you’ve been all over Oregon working with different partners. Have you experienced any pushback against these ideas? Has anyone been less than happy about encouraging tourism or recreation to stimulate local economies?
MH: Most definitely, there’s been pushback in different ways. I’m not going to name any person or organization, but I think with each of our partner communities, a lot of economic development agencies don’t consider tourism to be economic development. So from them, we get the question of, why are you here? And then, you know, some of the food non-governmental organizations are like, this is our space. We’re the food non-profit. What are you doing here? Why are you working in this space?
I found it ironic when I joined this association, we’re a coastal tourism agency and we weren’t really close with our coastal ports. So from the ports, we didn’t really get pushback, but just indifference, like oh that’s cute, you’re here.
The only way we’re gonna get over that [pushback] is when we produce real things and they see real results and see real value from our efforts. And I think that’s fair.
DY: My final question, and it may seem like an obvious one, but I would like to talk about it head on. Why is it important to keep dollars in rural communities? I mean, why does it matter?
MH: Well, people are familiar with the whole, “dollars should circulate seven times in your local community” thing, right? The whole multiplier effect. But what happens when there’s only $1 and your community is not bringing anything more than that $1? There is no economic growth.
So if you want to keep your children here in a rural place, you better have jobs for them that they care about. And how are you gonna do that? By building new businesses and new types of businesses doing interesting things. And that’s what tourism is really good at. And so when we attract visitors and they come here and they spend $840 million of new money, now you go from $1 to $10 circulating in the community. And that’s intergenerational wealth that your kids can build a family on top of and a house in a neighborhood. So, without new money coming in, there’s nowhere to go from there.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.