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Wednesday, 07 June 2006 00:00

Elected officials meet to hear tourism complaints

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Elected town and county leaders will be dragged into the Haywood County tourism saga this week.

They will be asked to weigh in on how much of the $600,000 in tourism tax dollars should be dolled out in the form of grants for events. The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, a nine-member board, is granted oversight of money generated by a 3 percent tax on overnight lodging by state statute.

But some business owners in Maggie Valley are unhappy with the tourism board. The tourism board voted three weeks ago for a budget that would reduce funding historically awarded to the Maggie Valley Visitors Bureau for tourism promotions such as billboards, travel shows, festivals, staff and magazine ads. (See related article.)

The Maggie Valley town board held a special meeting to listen to complaints from tourism business owners upset by the budget cuts. In response, the Maggie Valley town board has called for a special meeting Friday of the Council of Governments — representatives from the elected town boards of Waynesville, Canton, Clyde and Maggie Valle, as well as the county commissioners. It will be held at noon in the meeting room adjacent to the Colonial Theater on Park Street in downtown Canton. The meeting is open to the public.

Maggie interests hope to appeal to the roomful of elected leaders to exert pressure on the tourism board to restore their budget cuts. Maggie isn’t the only entity that saw budget cuts. The Haywood County Chamber of Commerce and town of Canton both saw cuts in their funding as well.

But the Maggie Visitors Bureau historically got a greater share of tourism tax dollars and relied more heavily on those dollars to operate. Tourism tax dollars accounted for half of the Maggie Visitor Bureau’s budget. On top of money for festivals and magazine ads, the Maggie visitors bureau got $64,000 a year from the tourism authority to cover basic operating costs from staff to Web site development. That funding was cut to $20,000. The cut accounted for 30 percent of its total budget.

While the Maggie Valley Visitors Bureau and Haywood County Chamber of Commerce are presumably moving toward a merger, there has been little word on how the merger talks are going. Cooperation between the entities on preparing this year’s grant requests to the tourism authority appeared no better than in the past, however.

For example, both entities asked for $30,000 to hire an events director. Neither one got it. The Maggie Visitors Bureau asked for $10,000 to put on a new winter festival. The Haywood chamber asked for $3,000 to put on a new winter festival. Neither was aware the other had concocted the idea for starting up a winter festival.

Pile ‘er on

There is another solution for Maggie Valley to raise money for the visitors bureau: an additional tax on overnight lodging just in Maggie.

The state allows a county or town to tax overnight lodging up to 6 percent. Haywood County only collects 3 percent. There’s another 3 percent on the table there for the taking if the town of Maggie Valley wants it. The town board would simply have to pass a resolution asking the state legislature to OK the additional 3 percent tax on lodging.

Many counties and towns have done just that and upped their room tax in recent years.

Buncombe County raised theirs from 3 to 4 percent four years ago. The extra cent is designated for tourism infrastructure, from soccer fields to visitor center construction. Transylvania County upped theirs from 3 to 4 percent last year. Boone, Blowing Rock and Beech Mountain all upped their room tax from 3 to 6 percent over the past few years.

Franklin got permission to raise their lodging tax from 3 to 6 percent last year. The town hasn’t enacted the hike, but went ahead and called dibs on the extra 3 percent, blocking any future moves by the county to levy an extra 3 percent in the town limits since state law caps lodging tax at 6 percent.

The idea of upping the room tax in Maggie would likely be unpopular with some motel owners, however, who think it may hurt business. In addition, an extra 1, 2 or 3 percent would only apply in the town limits. Many of the vacation rentals on the mountainsides above Maggie aren’t in the town limits, nor are cabins on Jonathan Creek. Those accommodations wouldn’t pay the extra tax, but would likely reap the benefit of any successful promotions carried out with the tax revenue.

Another option is an extra 1 percent room tax countywide that could be designated by statute specifically to fund festivals.

Taking action

The letter from Maggie calling for the Council of Governments meeting cites “the lack of (tourism) funding of festivals in Haywood County” and asks “to discuss the issue and any action that might need to be taken.”

It is unclear just what action the Council of Governments could take. The tourism board is appointed by the county commissioners and is put in charge of tourism tax dollars by state statute. The county commissioners could feasibly dissolve the tourism authority and appoint all new board members who would allocate more money for festivals.

But any other action would require seeking an amendment to the tourism authority’s state charter. That means getting a bill passed by the General Assembly, and the deadline has passed for getting that done this year.

There are numerous models for structuring the tourism authority. Maggie Valley could split from the countywide tourism authority and do its own thing. Or the make-up of the board — currently weighted toward lodging owners — could be changed to reflect a greater diversity of the tourism industry. (See www.smokymountainnews-.com for last week’s article on different tourism models.)

An attempt to restructure the tourism authority means everything is on the table, however, and some local government leaders in the past have felt they should get a share of the tourism tax dollars due to the extra burden placed on infrastructure and services by the volume of tourists.

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