March 05, 2001 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

The La Grande/Union County Visitors and Conventions Bureau board of directors has decided that it can take over operations of the Blue Mountain Conference Center if it can obtain increased subsidies from the city and county.

The board presented the La Grande City Council with a proposal during a council work session Monday night indicating that to operate successfully the conference center would need a budget of $103,000 a year. Thats about $80,000 more than is currently provided to the VCB and the conference center.

The board has not approached the county with its proposal.

The city council listened to the proposal, seemed interested in promoting the conference center as part of spurring tourism in La Grande, but did not indicate if it could find money to support the concept when the budget process begins in two months.

The conference center, essentially the National Guard Armory on 12th Street which serves as a multi-use building, has been managed privately by BGL Event Planners since it opened in 1999.

Last fall the Blue Mountain Foundation, a group organized to raise funds to support the construction of the building, asked the VCB to take over the details of lining up and making arrangements for conferences.

The centers board appointed a committee, which presented the plan and a proposed budget to the city council Monday night. The committee suggested that more aggressive marketing, including direct sales, advertising, and packaging, is required to realize the full potential impact of the conference center on our local economy.

The report said that it will be necessary to increase recruitment if the number of conferences is to increase.

The previous commitment in funds from the city and county fall far short of the needs to grow the conference center business, according to the report.

The foundation doesnt want to be the overseer of the BMCC (conference center), board member David Thouvenel told the council. He indicated that if the board receives the $100,000, it could contract with BGL to manage the conference center.

We (the VCB Board) dont plan to take over management, said board member Doug Campbell.

Thouvenel said, Weve reached no conclusion as to who would manage the conference center.

Both the VCB and the conference center receive funding through the transient room tax collected throughout the county.

Forty percent of the room tax collected in the city goes to the VCB by city ordinance and 28.5 percent of the tax collected in the county goes to the VCB.

For the fiscal year 1999-2000, the VCB received $70,644 from the city and $31,800 from the county. For fiscal year 2000-2001, which ends June 30, the city budget calls for $76,367 to be distributed to the VCB. The county put in $25,000 for the VCB for the current fiscal year.

The conference center received $14,000 from the city and $10,500 from the county for the current fiscal year.

The conference center made a profit of only $9,000 last year, it was reported during the meeting.