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Visit SLO CAL still plans to conduct Oceano Dunes economic impact study 

Despite the California Coastal Commission's recent vote to eliminate off-roading in the Oceano Dunes, South County organizations and governments still plan to hire a third party to assess the economic benefits of the park as it is now.

click to enlarge AN IMPARTIAL TAKE? Visit SLO CAL and the South County Chambers of Commerce are partnering up to conduct another economic impact report on the Oceano Dunes District and the "indirect and induced economic benefits" it brings to neighboring communities. - FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • File Photo By Steve E. Miller
  • AN IMPARTIAL TAKE? Visit SLO CAL and the South County Chambers of Commerce are partnering up to conduct another economic impact report on the Oceano Dunes District and the "indirect and induced economic benefits" it brings to neighboring communities.

Visit SLO CAL and the South County Chambers of Commerce are partnering up to conduct another economic impact report on the Oceano Dunes District and the "indirect and induced" profits it brings to neighboring communities, San Luis Obispo County, and the California State Parks system.

The study, according to Visit SLO CAL President and CEO Chuck Davison, will also attempt to identify feasible strategies to mitigate losses amid the elimination of vehicle access in the park, and potential opportunities to repurpose the park in ways that could be beneficial to the economies of surrounding communities.

"In light of the recent California Coastal Commission decision, along with the upcoming closure of two of the largest economic drivers, Diablo Canyon and Phillips 66 Refinery, in our county, we believe the timeliness for this study is more important now than ever before," Davison wrote in a statement to New Times. "The results of the study will help us plan for the future of our county."

Visit SLO CAL's effort follows two other highly controversial studies that aimed to answer similar questions.

In 2018, Tahoe-based firm SMG Consulting released an economic report concluding that between July 2016 and September 2017, tourists to the Oceano Dunes District of California State Parks generated roughly $243 million in revenue for SLO County. The report was commissioned by State Parks, and off-roaders have touted it as proof that vehicle access at the park is necessary to the county's economy. Conservationists have criticized the report as biased and mathematically flawed.

An economic impact study conducted and published by a Cal Poly professor earlier this year came to the opposite conclusion: A near seven-month ban on vehicles in the Oceano Dunes during the pandemic had no significant impacts on businesses or tourism in surrounding communities. The study, which was also criticized by one side and applauded by the other, found that Oceano's transient occupancy tax revenue increased for several months during the closure compared to the same months the previous year, while off-roading was allowed.

Visit SLO CAL and the South County Chambers of Commerce hope to take an unbiased look at the reality of the situation in the Oceano Dunes so that local leaders can use impartial data to make adequate decisions for their communities moving forward.

"We just felt like it was really important to have something that was commissioned by the region," South County Chambers President and CEO Jocelyn Brennan told New Times. "We've got to roll up our sleeves and come up with a plan and help our businesses through this."

The study is expected to cost around $40,000, about half of which will be funded by Visit SLO CAL. Brennan said the South County Chambers plans to pitch in to help, and some South County cities, including Grover Beach, have agreed to support the effort as well. If all goes as planned, it should be completed by this summer, Brennan said.

But some community members aren't convinced that another economic impact report is necessary. Charles Varni is an Oceano resident who has long advocated for a vehicle-free beach. He worries that, like with studies of the past, this one will become politicized and brushed off by at least half of SLO County's population as biased and inaccurate.

"I think they have to be very careful about that," Varni told New Times. "And I'd really like to see more transparency in the methodology they're using."

Varni said he'd like to see the study's initial plan peer-reviewed before it even starts to ensure that whatever methodology Visit SLO CAL uses is sound. Then he'd like to see the completed study itself peer-reviewed, too. More than anything, Varni said he'd rather see a report regarding the future of the Oceano Dunes without vehicle access, something that envisions a new and prosperous beach without vehicles.

"I just don't see the reason for an economic impact study of [off-highway vehicles] here in South County because they aren't going to be around," he said. Δ

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