In the end, Flagstaff’s newest mural is like chalk on the driveway for a game of four-square: Although the artwork atop the pavement at Leroux and Aspen is called “Destination for all Seasons,” it won’t survive the winter amid the plows and cinder scratching up its surface.
Some locals won’t be sad to see it disappear – they don’t regard its cookie-cutter graphics and trite phrasing as art so much as advertising. And in a city that prohibits billboards and off-site signage, a giant promotional mural in the middle of historic downtown is about as welcome as neon signs or plastic benches.
So on the aesthetic side, the Convention and Visitors Bureau probably learned a lesson, albeit the noisy way. Resident artists and downtown denizens have come to appreciate the hand-painted, hand-tooled Railway Era vibes of Flagstaff’s restored urban core, and tourism promoters mess with it as their reputational peril.
As a result, the CVB has agreed that such promotional materials in the downtown will first be reviewed by citizen commissions that deal with beautification, art and heritage preservation. That doesn’t mean the city will follow their advice, but at least critics can’t say, as with “Destinations for all Seasons,” that they were never asked.
That still leaves the elected city council as a backstop, although most members polled by the Daily Sun said they were content to delegate review of such projects to the commissions. At $11,000, this project didn’t cross the $50,000 threshold for specific council approval, a figure that encourages a more entrepreneurial CVB on smaller initiatives.
The larger question, then, and one raised by some critics of the pavement mural, is whether tourism promotion in general has outpaced the ability of the city’s street grid to handle peak days. Or, at the very least, whether it should be more specifically targeted at groups and locations that will fill in the gaps, not pile on to the point of gridlock.
The last is a reference to the deluge of snowplayers from the Valley who have paralyzed local traffic in the Humphreys/Fort Valley corridor on winter holiday weekends for the last several years. The CVB didn’t cause the backups; but so far it hasn’t done much to discourage them. This past winter, its widely distributed “Winter Wonderland” tourism map still promoted the Highway 180 corridor even as it added other snowplay venues such as Fort Tuthill south of town.
The challenge with tourism is to direct it in such a way that the guests leave the hosts better off for having visited. In Flagstaff, those hosts include the city, which collects extra sales taxes from visitors, as well as the everyday residents stuck in snowplay jams. They include not only the mainstream hospitality and active recreation industries that cater to tourists essentially passing through town or here for a day, but also the arts, culture and nonprofit institutions that form deeper relationships with return visitors appreciative of Flagstaff’s small-town, slower-paced feel. The two are sometimes in conflict, with the CVB caught in the middle.
Our sense is that some of the resentment over the “Destinations for all Seasons” mural stems not so much from its look or contents but the unresolved questions over where tourism promotion in Flagstaff should be heading and how to get there. Coming up with answers should involve the city council during the next round of budget discussions. And if nothing else, it will keep their voicemails from filling up the next time the CVB takes on a high-profile promotional project, even one that costs less than $50,000.