Savvy campaign allows Referendum 2B to defy anti-tax logic
November 2, 2011
Steamboat Springs — The committee that succeeded in persuading 61 percent of Steamboat Springs voters to impose a 0.25 percent sales tax on themselves to bolster the community's ski season jet program got it done with a mix of old-school campaigning, savvy use of social media and a good dose of unabashed shtick.
Steamboat restaurateur Lizzie Larock, who injected much of her own personality into the campaign, recalls the first time she and Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association employees Shelly Bisbee and Marion Taylor ventured out on a fall afternoon wearing fake airline pilot caps.
"We thought about throwing a party every week. But then we thought, 'Why not just go out to where everyone already gathers?' Shelly and Marion and I realized nobody will know why we're wearing these hats," said Larock, who owns Old Town Pub. "It was a beautiful fall day, and we started out at the Pub and went on to the Rio, then Carl's and Sweetwater and back to Carl's. By the end, everyone was tracking us down to have a picture taken."
Taylor, who is the Chamber's director of finance and human resources, identifies with restaurant employees, too.
"I came up through the restaurants. That's how I got where I am," Taylor said. "That represents all my friends."
By wearing their pilot caps to local restaurants, they reached not only people in the food-service industry but also a large group of working people in Steamboat who congregate at restaurants and bars.
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From there, it was a natural step for Larock to post photos of the happy people in the airline pilot caps on the Yes 2 Air Facebook page.
"I've never been involved with a political campaign before," Larock said. "I'm a social person, but it would be hard for me to knock on doors. But it feels like Facebook was made for me."
The hats became the ultimate icebreaker and a rallying point for a group of community leaders flying into the teeth of a recession with a sales tax increase.
The campaign also included such traditional strategies as newspaper advertising, a phone campaign and neighborhood meetings.
Committee Chairman Bill Stuart said at the foundation of it all was a commitment to taking a personal approach to persuading voters that there was a direct connection between their household income and the mission of restoring the number of inbound airline seats that serve the Steamboat market during ski season.
"What we perceived is that you have a large group of people with families who are trying to make a living here, and it's not easy," Stuart said. "They have jobs or a business, and it's tough times. You explain to them how the airline program works, and they become supporters," Stuart said.
Stuart, who founded La Montaña with his wife, Kay, said he understands how many people make a good living in the restaurant industry during the heart of the ski season.
"They know the exact day when their incomes go up, and it's not the day the ski area opens," Stuart said. "It's the day in mid-December when the planes start flying."
But Larock, Stuart and Taylor also understood that a significant number of other industries in Steamboat depend heavily on the dollars that tourism brings to the community. They recruited electricians, plumbers and retailers to appear in a newspaper campaign in support of Referendum 2B that bolstered the impression among voters that diverse segments of the community were in support of the tax.
Stuart said a telephone campaign was put in place but that the bulk of it involved volunteers scanning a list of active voters obtained from the Routt County Clerk and Recorder's Office for names of people they knew. Instead of cold-calling voters from a list, Stuart said, they placed calls to people with whom they already had a relationship. Only toward the end of the campaign did they use a robo call by Olympic medalist Todd Lodwick to remind people to turn in their mail ballots.
Facebook became a place to build a community around the tax measure, with videos involving local troubadours and personalities.
Chamber Chief Executive Officer Tom Kern probably knocked on 100 doors in his neighborhood to make the case for Referendum 2B, Larock said. But Facebook became the 2011 version of knocking on doors. In this case, volunteers reached out from the Yes 2 Air page to "friend" acquaintances.
"We knew when we started we didn't want it to be partisan," Stuart said. "We wanted to reach people on a personal level. We had a lot of people work very hard on this."
In an off-year election when a statewide measure to increase funding for public education struggled to get 40 percent of the vote in Routt County, the committee boosting a sales tax to support ski season jet flights put a very personal strategy in place to draw 60 percent of Steamboat voters. It's perhaps even more remarkable considering the fate of almost every other tax-related measure across Routt County and Colorado on Tuesday night.
— To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com