Macon, Franklin tourism boards take helm during tough climate

Two recently created tourism boards in Macon County met last week to begin discussing how they can make the area more of a tourist destination.

The groups, the Tourism Development Authority and the Tourism Development Commission, represent the town of Franklin and Macon County, respectively. Each manages its own pot of money collected from a tax on overnight lodging.

Suffering from lower lodging tax revenues, the groups are trying to decide what they can do to help keep businesses afloat that depend on tourist traffic.

According to the Macon County finance office, lodging taxes in the county are down about $20,000 this year compared to last.

In November 2007 there was $36,331 collected in lodging taxes compared to $30,636 this year.

Last week’s brainstorming session, held at The Factory in Franklin, was designed to think up new ways to draw tourists to the area.

One idea is for the county to host cheerleading tournaments to bring up to 600 teams from all over the country.

Another idea is to start an Appalachian Quilt Trail with large colorfully painted wooden boards displayed on buildings, such as homes and barns, throughout the county. A map and brochure of the “Quilt Trail” would be printed with historical information about the sites. Quilt trails are in Watauga, Avery, Yancey and Mitchell counties currently, according to Linda Harbuck, executive director of the Franklin Chamber of Commerce, who is trying to get a trail established here.

In their efforts to work together the TDA and the TDC want to maintain their own identities but at the same time work together and not duplicate services.

In promoting Macon County they seek to make the area a destination rather than a place tourists pass through on the way to Gatlinburg, Tenn.

A 1,500-seat performing arts center scheduled to open this spring is expected to be a large tourist draw. The facility could stage large-scale theater and music productions.

Macon County Commissioner Bob Simpson said it is important that the entities not just accumulate and sit on the lodging tax money but spend it to promote the area.

The TDC has around $27,000 while the TDA has little to nothing, according to Harbuck. The TDA has no money because the town only recently started collecting its own lodging tax.

With the country in a recession, members of both boards say they are worried about the upcoming summer season being bad for the local merchants.

The summer is the biggest tourist season for the area, while spring and winter are slow. The groups discussed possibly having more events during the off months, but Simpson warned that attempts to do so in the past were met with little attendance and people lost money.

When attempting to develop events, the TDC and TDA said they may want to look at attracting “multi-day events” — functions that take the entire weekend. Such events will keep hotels booked.

But Franklin and Macon County have challenges in bringing large events because there is a lack of hotel space for attendees.

Simpson said if the county wants to draw tourists it needs to create an environment where events can be hosted.

This may require building a convention center, large softball complex and other facilities.

There are only about 300 hotel rooms in Franklin, which is not enough to accommodate large events.

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