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Wednesday, 17 January 2007 00:00

Everybody wants on the TDA: Recent publicity and problems are likely catalysts

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A record number of applicants are seeking seats on the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, likely spurred by the ongoing tug of war over the best way to spend $650,000 annually in tourism promotion dollars.

 

There are 17 applicants for three seats on the board. Haywood County commissioners, who make the appointments, spent four and a half hours plowing through interviews with the tourism board hopefuls on Tuesday (Jan. 16.)

“Everyone feels the same way I do. If they don’t put in applications they can’t yell and complain about it,” said Michael Meissner, owner of Smoky Falls rentals in Maggie Valley.

Critics of the tourism board have been appointed in the past, but none were successful in pulling off a major overhaul while on the board.

“I don’t know unless I try,” Meissner said.

Meissner is one of several applicants on the board of directors with the Maggie Valley Visitors Bureau and Chamber of Commerce.

“We are hoping to get somebody from the Maggie Valley area that would represent us as a whole,” said Caroline Edwards, owner of Miss Caroline’s Wedding Chapel and a Maggie Chamber board member.

Over the years the Maggie Valley business community has had many disagreements with the tourism board over money. Tourism dollars are raised by a 3 percent tax on overnight lodging. The lion’s share of those tax dollars are collected in Maggie Valley. With tourism as Maggie’s only industry, the town and business community feel they have a greater stake in how tourism promotion is handled.

The conflict was exacerbated last year when the tourism authority cut by half the funding allocated to the Maggie Valley Chamber — used for everything from billboards and brochures to visitor center operations — and instead put the money toward countywide marketing efforts. The outcry prompted the county commissioners to appoint a task force to study TDA operations and expenditures, which met throughout the fall.

“I think the publicity of those meetings gave it a higher profile and created an interest that is not usually there,” County Commissioner Chairman Larry Ammons said of the record number of applicants. “We have a lot of high-quality applicants.”

The task force recommendations weren’t exactly what TDA critics had in mind, however.

A top change recommended by the task force and adopted by county commissioners is a new make-up for the tourism board. Currently, six of the nine board members must be in the lodging business, and the other three in a tourism-related field. The board’s focus was seen as too insular, however. The new make-up for the board will include three from the lodging industry, two from tourism-related businesses, and one each recommended by Canton, Clyde, Waynesville and Maggie Valley.

The change has to be authorized by the state, however, since the tourism board is a taxing entity. The change won’t go through until later this year. When it does, the commissioners will likely fashion a new tourism board and everyone currently serving would have to reapply under the new structure.

“If the legislation passes and the tourism board is dissolved and reformed, this might be a very short tenure and I’m not sure the applicants have thought about that,” Ammons said.

If nothing else, however, the applicants for the tourism board got 15 minutes of face time with the county commissioners this week as part of the appointment process to share their concerns and ideas.

“It sure can’t hurt to get a few Maggie voices heard about the direction we want to see tourism development going,” Edwards said. “All of us I’m sure have different views. At least there will be one point in time where you have their undivided attention.”

The county commissioners will likely be interested in gauging the applicants’ views on one point in particular: whether they support a 1 percent increase on the room tax to fund recreation improvements, from greenways to new soccer fields, which commissioners have asked for.

It is a departure from the traditional use of tourism tax dollars. But counties throughout the state are increasingly using tourism revenue for quality-of-life enhancements, which in turn make the area more attractive to tourists. The tourism lobby is not crazy about the trend, however. Commissioners will want to know whether the applicants are on board with the idea.

Another 1 percent increase is in the works to divvy up among districts of the county for special uses, such as festival promotion. The county would be split into five districts — one for each zip code — for purposes of dividing up the money. It’s intended to quell complaints that the tourism board doesn’t dole out enough money to individual locales.

The commissioners will likely make the appointments at their meeting Monday (Jan. 22.) Ammons said a top consideration will be achieving balance on the tourism board, both in terms of gender and geography within the county. Of the six seats not up for reappointment and still on the board, four are from Maggie.

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