Asheville – Before making decisions, both sides of a contentious issue should be presented publicly to local government bodies. Frequently, this is not the case, especially if leaders are in agreement with one of the positions. An exception was made at the June 21 meeting of the Buncombe County Commissioners.
On May 19, the commissioners voted unanimously in favor of a resolution supporting reforms to the room occupancy tax. Chair Brownie Newman led the narrative, reviewing the history of the establishment of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority (TDA) and the room tax it administers. Since the institution of the room tax in 1993, proceeds therefrom have grown beyond expectations. The proceeds are statutorily split so that two-thirds are spent promoting local travel and tourism, and the remainder is spent on tourist-related investments.
At a previous meeting, Newman and Commissioners Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Parker Sloan spoke against the tourist tax while discussing other agenda items. Sloan was impassioned as he called for the abolition of the tax, and Newman called it “outrageous” and “a disservice to the community.” The room tax, said Newman, was one reason why he supported the county contracting with a lobbyist.
For the current year, the TDA is expected to bring in $36,434,415 from the room tax, and it is expected to collect about $40,806,000 next year. Meanwhile, local governments are using windfalls from COVID disbursements, the opioid settlement, and the Dogwood Health Trust to help make their structurally-imbalanced budgets flush. It is only natural, then, that they would be eyeing TDA funds. The plan was to change the existing legislation to reduce the percentage of the tax that goes toward advertising tourism and expand the allowable uses for the remaining portion.
So, in an unexpected turn of events, Vic Isley, president and CEO of Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, found a spot on the commissioners’ agenda to present a counterpoint. Her tone had an air of sternness as she addressed the commissioners, chair, and county manager.
Isley began with the results of a professional survey of 382 randomly-sampled residents on their “awareness and perceptions of destination tourism and its impact on the community.” A whopping 83% of respondents agreed with the statement, “tourism is beneficial to my community,” and 69% said tourism’s impact was more positive than negative. In addition, about 80% said they encouraged friends and family members to visit; Isley herself said she was going to enjoy a visit from a near and dear one from Chicago that week. Opinions about the detriment of tourists to the local economy were mixed.
Isley next spoke of amenities receiving TDA funds that are enjoyed by locals as well as tourists. The most popular among survey respondents were the WNC Farmers Market, the NC Arboretum, the Grove Arcade, the WNC Nature Center, Pack Square Park, Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville, and the Asheville Art Museum.
She then issued a word of caution to those unnamed souls who were talking about abolishing the TDA. She described them as feeling the community was on the map and in no need of further advertising. She spoke of hot and happening places like Colorado, which, upon terminating its tourism marketing program, according to market analyses, lost $1.4 billion in traveler spending in the first year and $2.4 billion in each subsequent year and plummeted from first to 17th in the nation as a summer resort destination. Other once popular destinations, like Connecticut and San Diego, have experienced similar fates.
There was not only talk about altering the TDA’s spending; two bills had been filed in the legislature to effect the change. Consequently, Isley said, they were prepared to go with either one of two budgets.
Isley reminded the commissioners that tourism dollars supported small businesses and the families of those who work in them. Last year, tourists spent $2.2 billion at local businesses. By far and wide, tourist dollars went to lodging and food and beverage businesses, but $468 million (21%) went to retail, $300 million (13%) went to recreation and entertainment, and $255 million (11%) went to transport. Isley then plugged local businesses that buy local to keep dollars in the local “circular” economy.
Isley then shared some remarkable numbers, among which was that visitors are found to account for 60%-80% of sales by some local artists. Most pertinently, though, tourists provide revenue for the city and county.
She wrapped up by saying the TDA not only recruits visitors, it takes action to influence how they behave when they’re here. The TDA’s strategic imperatives align with those of the city and county and include balanced recovery and sustainable growth; safe and responsible travel; diversification of tourist demographics; and support for the arts.
Slides left out for time included one with goals that included, “engaging residents and visitors with shared values to care for and respect natural, cultural, and human resources vital in delivering quality guest experiences;” and “collaborating with community organizations, local businesses, and environmentally-focused partners to support the sustainability and growth of our outdoor economy.” One way this is being accomplished is with signs that, for example, tell people to throw their trash away and be careful with fires.
Another slide spoke about equity and how the TDA wanted to, “extend a genuine invitation to black travelers and other diverse audiences, including LGBTQ visitors.” Strategies included gifting $1 million to black-owned media and creators and setting up the African-American Heritage Trail.
When she finished, Isley asked if there were any questions, and Newman quickly replied, “All right. It doesn’t look like there are any. Thank you.”