Only a year after her promition to overseeing economic development efforts in Grand County, Elaine Gizler is resigning to take a job as economic development and visitor services director for San Juan County.
The departure comes as pressures continue mounting over Moab’s tourism marketing strategies.
The changing face of oft-hated marketing
Gizler was promoted from her position as executive director of the Moab Area Travel Council last August, a position she held since August 2015. In that role, she was often the subject of animosity from both elected officials and residents because of her role overseeing Moab tourism marketing.
In 2018, Gizler abruptly left a travel council meeting after being compared to a Nazi.
Gizler frequently points out that Grand County has a minimum amount of money it must put toward tourism advertising, according to state law, despite public pressures to reduce marketing of Moab.
As the travel council board deliberated at the July 2018 meeting over public dissent over the travel council’s advertising role, Sarah Sidwell, the vice chair at the time, said, “I really hate it when somebody from this board says, ‘we’re just doing our job,’ because you know what, the Nazis were too.”
Feeling personally attacked, Gizler stood from her seat and responded, “I am offended that I and my staff and my office would be equated to Nazis … when I say we’re just doing our jobs we are following the law.” Sidwell immediately took back her comment and apologized, but Gizler walked out of the meeting, which was adjourned shortly thereafter.
Sidwell later left the board, but the sentiment she shared at the meeting — that she “really hate[s] it when we all say that we’re just doing our job” — continues to echo in Grand County.
In time, Gizler responded to the criticism by changing the travel council’s marketing strategy. In 2019, she oversaw the launch of the “Do It Like a Local” marketing campaign, which promoted responsible tourism and reminding visitors of their impacts on Moab residents.
The state would later adopt the Red Emerald Strategy, aimed at making Utah “an industry leader in responsible visitation, changing the way we market and manage our beautiful destinations,” according to Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism.
The Do It Like A Local campaign did not quiet dissent, and Grand County residents continued pointing a finger at the Moab Area Travel Council’s marketing strategy.
“I would ask and beg the commissioners to please take this information and discuss it with your constituents because, apparently, they are not aware of any of the things that the travel council does,” Gizler told the Grand County Commission at a Nov. 5 meeting. “I think in their minds, we’re advertising UTVs and Jeeps and every other motorized vehicle; they don’t understand that we work with Trail Mix — we work with everyone in this community to make it a better place.”
Grand County Commission Chair Mary McGann agreed, telling Gizler that she does “not believe that a lot of the community understands the effort that you and your staff have put forward to change the direction of how you advertise, when you advertise.”
The legal requirements behind the campaigns
State law requires that, because Grand County charges a tax on overnight stays at hotels and campgrounds through the state’s Transient Room Tax, it must spend a portion of that money on advertising tourism to the area.
The requirement has been in place since 1966, when the state established the tax. Grand County began collecting the tax in 1970 at the direction of the Utah Tax Commission, and in 1990, the rules changed to give counties discretion over whether to collect the tax, and how much.
Grand County has successfully lobbied over time for greater discretion over how it spends lodging tax dollars, but wins over time have become less substantial.
In 2020, the county successfully lobbied for an amendment to the tax law to allow it to spend lodging tax dollars on economic diversification. However, the money is only out of additional lodging revenues it collects over recent years, and the amendment will effectively expire in 2025.
A year of staff turnover
This year alone, Grand County has seen the departures of three department heads, including two retirements.
Tim Higgs, longtime supervisor of the Grand County Noxious Weed Control, retired in May; Mila Dunbar-Irwin and the rest of her department left Grand County planning and zoning in February; and Steve Swift retired as director of the Old Spanish Trail Arena in January.
Economic and community development have seen the most change since the departure of Zacharia Levine, the department of the then-consolidated department, in summer 2020. The department was later separated out into planning and zoning, which Dunbar-Irwin oversaw, and economic development, which Gizler oversaw.