A failure by the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce and the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority to provide county leaders reports on how room-tax dollars are spent led this week to promises of prompt corrective action.
Mark Jones, who serves in a dual role as county commissioner and chairman of the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority, said he had not been aware that there had been multiple and ongoing attempts to understand tourism marketing efforts. These are carried out with county funds under the direction of Cashiers Chamber of Commerce Director Sue Bumgarner. Bumgarner also has failed to provide the county with copies of minutes from Cashiers tourism board meetings as requested.
Jones’ concession came, however, after he indicated that he believed adequate information was already available to commissioners from the county’s finance office.
County Finance Officer Darlene Fox “prepares reports every month. Every dollar that goes in and every dollar that goes out,” Jones told the board.
While the bills for the Cashiers tourism agency are filed with the county finance department, it is often not clear from the invoices exactly what it is for, however, with only general references to an ad that ran in an unnamed magazine during an unspecified month or generic “marketing” services.
Chairman Jack Debnam made it evident that he didn’t consider Jones’ suggestion to simply rely on the finance office a satisfying one. Debnam indicated that he wants direct answers from the people with their hands down in the money pot.
“I’ve requested copy of minutes, since January, and information from (Bumgarner) and received nothing,” Debnam said.
Debnam said that the Jackson County Tourism and Travel Authority, by contrast, has provided him information and minutes of board meetings.
“I apologize,” Jones said. “I was not aware of the repetitive requests, but I hear loud and clear now.”
County Attorney Jay Coward told board members they have a lawful right to the information being sought. He did not detail possible remedies if the Cashiers TTA information and minutes continue being withheld from county leaders.
Bumbargner also was unable to provide The Smoky Mountain News with minutes from her tourism board meetings or an accounting of how marketing money was spent, including magazines ads had published in. Bumgarner was not at the commission work session, held this week to discuss whether to hike the county room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent.
Jones urged a slowdown on the consideration of a room tax hike from 3 to 6 percent. The tax on overnight lodging generated $440,000 last year, which is pumped back into tourism marketing efforts carried out by two separate tourism promotion agencies in the county — the Cashiers and Jackson County Travel and Tourism authorities.
Commissioner Doug Cody defended the county’s attempt to demand accountability for how tourism tax money is being spent.
“I want to know why we are getting our butts kicked, and where our money is going, and is it being used wisely, and I want to find out now. And putting the tax increase aside, there’s a reason we are lagging behind. And, I don’t want to wait a year,” Cody said.
Regional tourism numbers show Jackson County behind other Western North Carolina counties, both in revenue made and jobs created.
The commissioners did not weigh in during the workshop on their individual stances on a room tax increase. Previously, four voted in favor of the increase, but that was before public backlash. Commissioners will take up the issue in early January for a vote, with intentions of studying the issue between now and then.
County Manager Chuck Wooten estimated the county’s two TTAs have spent as much as $10 million combined in tourism tax money over the past 25 years. Cashiers receives 75 percent of the lodging tax generated in the Cashiers area — which amounted to $177,000 last year. The remaining $263,000 went to the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority.
Cashiers’ efforts to attract tourists have been isolated from the county’s overall tourism efforts, spearheaded by the separate Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority and the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.
Cashiers does not share marketing strategy or advertising campaigns with the Jackson County TTA.
• Jackson County commissioners in early October voted 4-1 to hike the county’s room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent, with Mark Jones voting against the increase.
• The board later rescinded that vote because, as advised by County Attorney Jay Coward, they failed to hold a legally required public hearing.
• A side issue erupted over whether the two separate tourism marketing arms — one for Cashiers and one for the county as a whole — should be merged.
• The obligatory public hearing was held last week, attracting a swarm of unhappy lodging owners from the southern portion of the county who aired their vast displeasure with the proposed increase.
• Commissioners held a work session this week to discuss the possible hike. Discussion among commissioners deteriorated into accusations of underhanded dealing and political power plays. Before the argument broke out, County Manager Chuck Wooten defended the sequence of events leading up to the room-tax vote by presenting commissioners and members of the news media with an inch-tall stack of paperwork. These included emails and other documentation accumulated before and after the October room tax hike.
County Manager Chuck Wooten provided the following suggestions for consideration by commissioners, carefully emphasizing these were an attempt to help, not control, the debate:
• Take no action: Occupancy tax remains at 3 percent and the county’s two travel and tourism boards continue as currently configured.
• Make minor structural changes: Keep two tourism agencies, but provide more flexibility in how the room tax is spent, allowing a portion to go toward “tourism-related expenditures,” including capital projects, rather than solely marketing and promotions.
• Do a comprehensive performance evaluation of the current tourism agencies and analyze the effectiveness of these organizations, then make decisions based off of the results.
• Hike the tax from 3 percent to 6 percent and form a single Jackson County Tourism Development Authority.
A work session this week on Jackson County’s room tax appears to mark the beginning of open warfare and the explosive end of a fragile truce that has existed on the board of commissioners since three newcomers were elected last year.
Commissioner Joe Cowan, in a simile that would have done Homer justice, compared himself and fellow Democrat Mark Jones to “mushrooms left to grow in the dark” when it comes to having rightful access to county information.
Cowan accused board Chairman Jack Debnam and County Manager Chuck Wooten of sneaky, underhanded dealings, and of deliberately not providing the two Democrats with adequate and advanced background on issues that would enable them to make informed decisions.
Cowan has undoubtedly been in a minority on the board following a power shift in last year’s election. As for why he’s now suddenly irked by having no voice? One might possibly attribute Cowan’s anger to self-induced chagrin.
Cowan voted “yes” in October to hike the county’s room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent. In doing so, Cowan abandoned the only other Democratic Commissioner on the board, leaving Mark Jones high, dry and visibly alone — Jones was the sole “no” vote against the hike. Cowan this week, without being explicit about the exact trigger for his public outburst, seemed to blame a lack of information for his previous, and apparently now regretted, support.
“In nine years on this board I’ve never experienced this before,” a bucked-up Cowan told his fellow board members, his face reddening. “And I resent the hell out it.”
“The chairman doesn’t communicate with me, this gentleman doesn’t communicate with me,” Cowan said gesturing toward Wooten, who was hired in place of longtime Manager Ken Westmoreland when the new board took over.
“If you’d come to the office more than 15 minutes before the meeting, you might know what was happening,” Debnam said in reply.
Cowan said that in his previous years on the board, information flowed to commissioners via copious emails and written communications.
“I’m just saying it’s not right,” Cowan said.
Wooten, after the meeting, maintained that he regularly emails four of the commissioners, including Cowan. Commissioner Charles Elders does not use email; he receives written documentation of county business, the county manager said.
Debnam again asserted that if Cowan doesn’t know what’s going on, it’s his own fault for not putting much effort into staying informed.
“You need to call me every once in a while,” Debnam shot back at Cowan during the lengthy exchange.
“I don’t know what to call you about, because I don’t know what you are doing,” Cowan said.
Commissioner Doug Cody wryly suggested that Cowan consider checking the upcoming agendas for board meetings as the other commissioners do.
Cowan told news reporters after the meeting that he believes he and Jones are being shutout of the information flow because they are in the minority.
“Hell, I’m the minority party,” Debnam said when asked if he was, as accused, persecuting Democrats by withholding information they need and are rightfully entitled to have.
Debnam is a conservative-leaning Independent who won election, at least in part, through the use of GOP advertising dollars. The other two members of the five-man board, Doug Cody and Charles Elders, are bona fide registered Republicans.
Elders and Jones were silent during the verbal brawl.
The proposed tax increase has been rescinded because of a failure to hold a required public meeting. This time lapse, in turn, has allowed outraged Jackson County lodging owners an opening to express strong opposition. They have said an additional tax burden imposed in such a sour economic climate could put some of them out of business and severely damage the bottom lines of everyone in the lodging industry reliant on tourist dollars (see accompanying article).
Jackson County is nowhere close to cementing a deal with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad — one that would offer financial incentives in exchange for basing a steam engine tourist train in Dillsboro.
“It is far from a done deal,” said County Manager Chuck Wooten.
The county and the train have yet to agree on key factors.
The heart of the matter is a restored 1913 steam engine and passenger cars the railroad would like to put in service. But there’s a problem. The train is in Maine, and moving it here would cost $430,000, the railroad’s owner Al Harper estimates.
Harper wants the county to chip in half the cost of moving the train, as well as help secure an outside grant to build a turntable and a standing commitment to help with advertising costs.
Discussions have been informal and intermittent since last winter. The deal is primarily being brokered by a Dillsboro business owner and town board member, David Gates, who is acting as a de facto intermediary between Harper and county officials.
Gates recently drew up a draft contract and passed it around to the various parties. Harper lives out of state, but came to town for the train festival in Bryson City in late September. Gates took him a copy — and Harper promptly signed it.
The draft is not a version the county would endorse right now, however, and Wooten was flummoxed as to why Harper would have signed it prematurely.
There’s a key component missing, from the county’s perspective. Jackson County wants a written guarantee the steam engine would be based in Dillsboro for at least five years — not Bryson City, where the rest of its trains depart from.
“We want it to originate in Dillsboro, turn around in Bryson City and run back to Dillsboro,” Wooten said.
Shops would benefit more if people boarded and disembarked in Dillsboro, rather than merely rolling into town for a 90-minute layover before loading back up and heading out.
The trip from Bryson City to Dillsboro and back lasts four hours total, including the layover. Tickets start at $49 for adults and $29 for children age 2 to 12.
Dillsboro was once the main depot for the train, but the headquarters were moved to Bryson City in 2005. Then in 2008, the train yanked service to Dillsboro completely before partially restoring it the following year.
“When the train left, they lost a lot of traffic,” Wooten said of Dillsboro merchants.
County leaders are skittish that could happen again and want an assurance built into the contract. To pass muster with the county, the contract would have to require the train to keep the steam engine based in Dillsboro for five years. If it is moved elsewhere, the railroad would have to pay back a portion of the county’s grant, Wooten said.
Ideally, the train would promise to run a certain number of trips — such as two a day during summer and fall, and once a day during winter. But the county can’t expect the railroad to make such a commitment not knowing what the demand will be.
The draft contract circulated by Dillsboro stipulated that operations of the steam engine would be based in Dillsboro. But it also stated that “only the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad will have complete authority as it relates to all scheduling and operations of the train set originating out of Dillsboro.”
Such a disclaimer could make enforcement difficult if the railroad ever broke the promise.
Wooten also said if a deal was ever agreed on, the county would shy away from writing a check directly to the railroad. Instead, the county would want an invoice from the company involved in moving the steam engine and would pay it directly.
A must-have for the train to bring a steam engine to Dillsboro is a turntable, a piece of track that can be spun around to get the engine pointed back the right way when it reaches the end of the line.
The train apparently can’t afford the $200,000 to build one. The tiny town of Dillsboro can’t either. But the town will apply for a grant to cover the cost. A lot is riding on the outcome of that grant.
“No turntable, no steam engine,” Wooten said. “That would be a deal killer.”
The train currently runs on diesel engines. When the engine reaches the end of the line on excursions, it goes in reverse until it gets back to the depot in Bryson City.
Steam engines can’t go in reverse for long distances, however, making the turntable critical. The steam engine would run from Dillsboro to Bryson City, so another turntable would have to be installed there.
A turntable in Bryson City has been discussed for years. In 2005, the train got a $7.5 million low-interest loan from the Federal Railroad Administration, in part to construct turntables in Bryson City and Dillsboro. “How many years ago was that and where is the turntable?” asked Hanneke Ware, an inn owner in Jackson County who doesn’t think the county should give the railroad a grant. Wooten said the train apparently purchased the turntables but never installed them.
A portion of that loan was also for repairs to the track. But the majority was used to restructure existing debt that had a higher interest rate.
That existing debt and federal loan is one reason the railroad wants grants — not more loans — to move the steam engine and for the turntable. Wooten was told by the railroad that it lacked the collateral to take on additional debt right now.
The train has also asked for money for advertising from the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority — tapping into the pot of money raised from a tax on overnight lodging in the county. The train initially asked for $150,000 a year, but has since revised the request to an unspecified amount of advertising on the train’s behalf, specifically for marketing the steam engine service from Dillsboro.
Opponents to a proposed room tax increase in Jackson County are accusing county leaders of secretly earmarking the money for a grant to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
“If this is about raising funds to get the railroad to move back to Dillsboro, then we are against it,” said Hanneke Ware, owner of the Chalet Inn, at a public hearing on the room tax increase this week. “It is not right to increase the accommodation taxes in a county as widespread as Jackson to provide marketing money to a private business.”
The scenic tourist railroad has asked the county for as much as half a million dollars in exchange for offering steam engine train service to the tourist village of Dillsboro.
The train, once headquartered in Dillsboro, cited the flagging economy when it pulled out in 2008. Dillsboro’s galleries, gift shops and restaurants were thrust into a tailspin over the sudden loss of 60,000 tourists annually.
While the train has since brought limited passenger train service back to Dillsboro, business owners worry the train won’t stick around and still pine for the same level of foot traffic they once enjoyed.
County Commissioner Mark Jones, who spoke to commissioners during the public hearing in his capacity as head of the Cashiers Area Travel and Tourism Authority, said if a tax increase is needed to help the train, perhaps Dillsboro should levy it. In Macon County, Jones pointed out, the county levies a 3 percent tax and the town of Franklin levies an additional 3 percent tax there.
County leaders say there is no connection between the proposed room tax increase and the financial assistance being sought by the railroad.
“We don’t have a motive,” said Commission Chairman Jack Debnam.
Anyone who thinks the room tax increase is aimed at raising money to give the railroad is misinformed, Debnam said. The county has bandied the idea around but is not close to a deal, Debnam said. (see related article)
Several speakers opposing the room tax hike believe there is a connection, however.
“Why are they asking the county for money?” Ware asked.
She said the railroad should do what other businesses do when expanding: namely, get a bank loan.
“Is it because they don’t have collateral?” Ware asked. “If they can’t get a loan, why would the county want to put money into a business whose financial plans are tenuous?”
Henry Hoche likewise questioned why the tourist railroad needs money from the county.
“To me it makes no sense why the railroad isn’t paying for it itself,” said Hoche, owner of Innisfree Inn By-the-Lake in Glenville.
Giving tax money to private business in exchange for creating jobs isn’t exactly a new concept. Incentives to land new industry are common at the state level, and counties often get in the game by offering tax credits to lure new companies offering jobs.
Jackson County has a revolving loan fund designed to help businesses moving to or expanding in Jackson County. Al Harper, the owner of the railroad, previously estimated 15 to 20 news jobs would be created under his plan to base a steam engine train in Dillsboro — a plan predicated on financial help, however.
County Manager Chuck Wooten said the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad steam engine project would not create enough jobs to qualify for the size of the revolving loan request, however.
It wouldn’t matter anyway, Wooten said, because the railroad has since told him it can’t take on any more debt.
Spin-off jobs created by other businesses, such as the tourist-oriented shops in Dillsboro, wouldn’t count toward the job creation quota the railroad must meet, Wooten said.
The scenic railroad wants to base trips on a restored 1913 steam engine and rail cars in Dillsboro, but there’s a hitch. The train is in Maine, and it would cost more than $400,000 to move it down to Dillsboro, the railroad estimates. It wants the county to split the cost, plus pony up money to help advertise the new steam engine service.
Currently, tourism tax dollars can only go to marketing and advertising, not to hard costs like steam trains. The narrow criteria were imposed by the state in the 1980s when counties first began charging lodging taxes.
A few years ago, the law changed. Room tax can now fund “tourism-related expenditures,” which can include walking trails, festival bleachers, boat docks, or perhaps a stream train — anything that would presumably lure tourists. The state allows up to one-third of a county’s room tax dollars to go toward such “tourism-related expenditures.”
If Jackson County wants this flexibility, however, it has to adopt new language at the local level reflecting that. It has become part of the discussion over whether to increase the room tax, along with revamping the tourism oversight agency that controls the money.
Clifford Meads, general manager of High Hampton Inn in Cashiers, doesn’t like the idea of tourism tax money going to projects instead of strictly promotions.
“There will be people dreaming up projects so they can spend the money,” Meads said.
Meads said shipping money from other parts of the county to help Dillsboro is “going to be divisive.”
Cashiers business owners led the charge against a proposed tax increase on overnight lodging in Jackson County during a public hearing this week.
Several lodging owners complained that tourism is already down because of the economy. Asking tourists to pay a higher tax when they are reluctant to travel in the first place is adding insult to injury, they argued.
“This is our bread and butter,” said Richard Hattler of Mountain Lake Rentals in Cashiers, adding that a tax increase in these times of economic hardships is “insane.”
SEE ALSO: Is room tax hike aimed at helping scenic railroad?
George Ware of Chalet Inn said tax increase would represent an “ill-advised action at the worst-possible time.”
About 40 people packed the hearing before county commissioners, with a dozen speaking out against the tax increase.
“You are going to negate the efforts of the tax itself,” said Judy Brown, president of the Greater Cashiers Area Merchants’ Association. “I think this is going to end up blowing up in our faces.”
Jackson leaders have proposed doubling the room tax from 3 to 6 percent. The room tax raised $440,000 last year, which is pumped back into tourism promotions.
The extra revenue from the proposed tax increase should mean more money to market Jackson County as a destination, which in turn should increase tourism. That’s something supporters say Jackson County sorely needs.
Overnight stays have declined by 12 percent in Jackson since 2006. Jackson has fared worse on the tourism front than other counties and has failed to rebound as well as its neighbors.
But a room tax increase is the wrong approach, opponents argued. It would put Jackson’s room tax higher than surrounding counties: Haywood and Transylvania are at 4 percent, while Macon and Swain are at 3 percent.
Tourists are already penny pinching as it is. Industry-wide, lodging owners note a major trend in how visitors book their trips these days.
“It is a last minute reservation, they want only one night, they want a discount, and they want the bottom line of how much it is going to cost,” said Michelle McMahon, owner of Mountain Brook Cottages for more than 30 years.
McMahon claims tourists are savvy enough these days to ask about extra taxes and fees, factoring the total cost — not just the advertised nightly rate — into their decision about where to stay.
“They compare, compare, compare,” McMahon said. “Nobody truthfully cares this is Jackson County. They just want to come to the mountains.”
Mary Korotwa, owner of Cashiers Resort Rentals, said the county is barking up the wrong tree in its quest for more tourism tax money. Instead, the county should be tracking down people who rent out their mountain homes and cabins to vacationers under the radar without levying the tax and remitting it to the county.
“You are leaving money on the table,” Korotwa said. “There are legions of homeowners in the county renting their own properties who are not paying the tax.”
Opponents overwhelmingly hailed from the Cashiers area. None of the county’s large chain hotels showed up.
That led County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam to wonder whether opposition to the rate hike is shared by the majority in the tourism industry. Debnam said the goal is to help tourism, not hurt it.
“We are trying to figure out how to promote Jackson County,” Debnam said. “We’ve got to be able to do a better job than we’ve been doing.”
Controversy over the room tax increase has opened other wounds in the county. One is whether tourism tax revenue should continue to be divvied up between two tourism entities — the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority and a separate Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority.
Both of those contract with either the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and Cashiers Chamber of Commerce to carry out on-the-ground tourism marketing. Manning a visitor center, answering phones, mailing out brochures, placing ads in magazines or on billboards, managing a travel web site — all these functions are carried out by the respective chambers of commerce rather than an explicit county travel and tourism staff.
The county has floated the idea of merging the separate Jackson and Cashiers tourism agencies into a single countywide tourism authority. The chambers of commerce fear they could lose their starring role — and their cut of the room tax revenue — under a new structure.
Robert Jumper, chairman of the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority, spoke up for the vital role played by the Jackson chamber when it comes to tourism.
The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce has the skills, knowledge and expertise to orchestrate tourism promotions on behalf of the county, Jumper said.
“We want our voice to be heard,” Jumper said, adding that any new countywide entity should honor the existing arrangement with the chamber
SEE ALSO: Railroad wants money, county wants assurances
Debnam said not to worry. He said the two chambers of commerce would, in all likelihood, remain the go-to entities for carrying out the scope of tourism work.
“I think there is a big misconception about what is going to happen,” Debnam said.
Commissioners didn’t offer any comments of their own following the hearing. They will hold a work session to talk about what to do at 1 p.m. Monday, Nov. 14, in the county administration building. The earliest they would vote is at their next formal meeting on Nov. 21.
The commissioners previously voted 4 to 1 on their intent to increase the room tax, but that was prior to such backlash from Cashiers lodging owners. One commissioner is rumored to have changed his mind.
Meanwhile, lodging owners fighting the tax continue to rally their forces. They are forming a Jackson County Accommodations Association “to strengthen our voice,” said Henry Hoche, owner of Innisfree Inn By-the-Lake in Glenville.
As for a compromise, such as increasing the tax to only 4 percent as neighboring Haywood and Transylvania have done, Hoche wasn’t interested. A more modest increase from 3 to 4 percent would bring in another $115,000 a year to bolster tourism efforts. But it simply isn’t needed, Hoche said.
Constant reshuffling of the organizational structure at Western Carolina University — at least three such applecart upsets in just six years — led to a recent faculty resolution seeking some order to the chaos.
“This … is in response to past practices, or mis-practices, on campus,” said Sean O’Connell, a WCU professor who led a review of how other universities handle similar reorganizations.
WCU’s Faculty Senate passed an official request recently calling on administration to develop guidelines and to follow them when considering organizational changes.
The tone of the meeting — discussion lasted just 20 minutes — was in stark contrast to a two-hour debate that raged among the board’s members on the same topic last April.
That spring meeting came shortly after the College of Education and Allied Profession was shuffled about, however, resulting in the resignation of Professor Jacqueline Jacobs, a tenured faculty member. She resigned to bring attention to her contention that university administration failed to include faculty members in decisions concerning reorganization.
More than six months later, Faculty Senate opted in a 22-2 vote to ask the university’s administration to emphasize “shared governance,” and to “recognize the necessity of faculty knowledge and participation in academic decision making.”
This, according to the resolution, would mean “all reviews and deliberations about reorganization should be conducted in a collegial and constructive way. Any reorganization proposal should seriously consider disciplinary and interdisciplinary relationships and shall also investigate impacts on stakeholders in non-academic units.”
In plain English, the people who work at WCU want to have their views considered when changes are contemplated.
Faculty hope making their desire for inclusion clear in the form of a resolution will avoid what has happened in the past.
“I think it’s clear that if the new reorganization policy recently passed by Faculty Senate had been in effect last year, the reorganization of the College of Education and Allied Professions, which eliminated two departments and suspended the doctoral program would not have proceeded as it did, without any significant faculty participation,” Professor Mary Jean Herzog said in an email interview.
Herzog works within the College of Education and Allied Professions and was critical of how a re-organization within that college was handled.
“Faculty participation and voice may scare some administrators as well as some faculty, but it has been proven, over and over again, that when decisions are made that involve all the stakeholders, the institution earns dividends in student, staff, and faculty support,” Herzog said in an email.
Perry Schoon, dean of the College of Education and Allied Professions, defended the reorganization, however. A university-level review of decision-making during the reorganization of the College “determined that appropriate processes were followed. … The institution has recognized the likelihood of other units needing to reorganize due to the economy and the lack of any university policy to guide those efforts. The resolution from the senate is the first step from one of the constituencies on campus to begin the development of guidelines.”
There’s no word on when, or if, the university’s top leadership will embrace the resolution as future policy when it comes to reorganization.
Western Carolina University Chancellor David Belcher told faculty members late last month that he has authorized a “thorough” salary analysis to review who gets what and why in the form of pay at the university.
“This is to be prepared for that time when we do get money again,” Belcher said. “I’m worried about the salaries.”
Belcher noted a salary study at WCU has not been done in several years. Salary increases also have been nonexistent as North Carolina struggles with the economic downturn.
English Professor Elizabeth Heffelfinger asked if the study would include information previously gathered about possible inequities at WCU in what women and men are paid.
“I want this to be as comprehensive as possible,” Belcher said in an affirmative response. The study would include all faculty, staff, and administrative positions.
Rules in Jackson County controlling how development occurs along the five-mile stretch or so of U.S. 441 that leads into the Cherokee Indian Reservation are undergoing review.
That concerns former Commissioner William Shelton, a resident and farmer who lives and works in that area. Shelton helped pass the regulations after the Whittier community developed a long-range vision and plan for this critical stretch of four-lane highway, known as the Gateway area.
“It is their plan, what they want to happen and to not happen,” Shelton said.
The Whittier land-use plan was a landmark event when passed four years ago. It marked one of the first attempts by any county west of Buncombe to undertake what is essentially spot-zoning. The county planning board now wants to revise the land-use plan.
County Planner Gerald Green, who was hired by the previous Democrat-controlled board just before its members were ousted during the last election, said there’s no desire in play here to strip the regulations of meaning.
Green said that he initiated the review himself. The planner maintained this is a simple attempt “to improve” rules on development in the corridor “and make them work for everyone.”
“The intention was to preserve the scenic rural character of the area. But I’m not sure the ordinance does that,” Green said.
Republican Commissioners Charles Elders and Doug Cody both said this week they support a planning board review of the U.S. 441 ordinance.
Cody described the existing regulations as “anti-development.” Elders, who lives and works in that area and replaced Shelton on the board, said that he’s heard a multitude of complaints in his community about the rules being too restrictive.
The current regulations don’t particularly limit where development can occur along the strip of highway leading to Cherokee. Instead, it lays out aesthetic standards, such as architecture and landscaping, to ensure what development does occur will be attractive. And that’s sort of what’s there now — some older motels, a consignment shop or two, service stations and a few businesses dot the corridor.
Green said he believes stipulating “nodes” of concentrated development might actually work better, such as at the juncture of U.S. 74 and U.S. 441. Concentrated development might be preferable to allowing growth to sprawl along the entire strip, he said, adding this sprawl actually could under-gird, not weaken, another goal of the original plan — traffic management.
Green also wants to take a hard look at rules now in place that dictate any new parking lots go behind buildings, not in front. The ordinance, he said, fulfills “new urbanist philosophies” but doesn’t take into account more practical considerations, such as the “context” of development already in place along U.S. 441.
Additionally, the ordinance fails to stipulate that developers can’t just “flip” their new businesses around. In other words, new development could technically meet the ordinance requirements by “fronting” the highway with the actual back of a new building, he said. Then the parking lot would be “in front” of the building as required — but that would not be what motorists on U.S. 441 were looking at as they travel to and from Cherokee.
The ordinance also fails to meet a more desirable planning goal of being able to get to several shops from a single access road instead of having a long smear of strip development along the entire corridor, Green said. And that discourages pedestrian movement between shops, he added.
A Charlotte firm helped develop the ordinance, and the county planner said that big-city approach to controlling development simply doesn’t work well on the ground in rural Western North Carolina.
“I see it as improving these regulations,” Green said of the planning board review. “The more I look at the ordinance the more questions I have about it. The plan (by the community) was very well done. It is the ordinance that is being reviewed.”
A series of community workshops and public meetings was held in Whittier to help develop a vision for the corridor. That vision laid the groundwork for the logistical aspects of the ordinance written by the contracted firm.
Green said he does not believe “that the goal of protecting the corridor and encouraging development is exclusive.”
Next May, Jackson County residents will vote on whether to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages countywide. In April, Cherokee residents will vote on whether to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages reservation-wide. A “yes” by both or either of those communities is likely to trigger some development along U.S. 441, though Green believes it will be fairly slow because of poor economic conditions.
“I do think it will grow, but given the state of the economy, it won’t be fast,” the county planner said.
And, if Jackson residents OK the sale of alcoholic beverages in May, it would take about a year for the actual reality of sales to occur. And that, loosely, is the timeframe Green wants to see the planning board work within, too.
“We want to make sure (Gateway) is both attractive and viable as a transportation corridor,” the planner said.
Cashiers could soon lose autonomy over its tourism marketing efforts if a plan to merge two separate tourism entities in Jackson County goes through.
While Cashiers tourism leaders are fighting to save this independent marketing arm, those in favor of a merger question whether the Cashiers solo approach has hampered overall tourism efforts in the county.
“This is a chance for the county to determine whether it is getting the best return on its investment,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said. “I just don’t believe there is a lot of cross communication going on. They are focusing on their one area of responsibility, and we are missing out on some opportunities.”
Dual tourism entities — namely the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authorities and the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authorities — are less effective than just one entity would be, according to Wooten.
“It appears to be if we had a single travel authority we would have an opportunity to develop a countywide strategic advertising plan and deploy our resources to focus on the specific areas of the plan,” Wooten said.
Cashiers’ tourism agency has isolated itself from larger tourism efforts in the county. Cashiers does not share its marketing strategy or advertising campaigns with the rest of county, leaving the larger Jackson tourism entity in the dark on how Cashiers spends its allotment of tourism tax dollars.
Although Cashiers representatives sit on the board of the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority, no one from greater Jackson County sits on the Cashiers board. The result is a one-way street, with Cashiers being privy to the tourism activities carried out by Jackson but not the other way around.
Sue Bumgarner, the director of the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority and the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce, was unable to provide basic information about their activities.
• She does not keep an accurate count of visitor center walk-ins.
• She could not provide information about how many web hits or telephone inquires the agency got.
• She said she did not have a list of how the Cashiers tourism authority has spent its advertising budget over the past year.
• Minutes from the quarterly meetings of the Cashiers tourism board were not readily available. They are kept in hardcopy format only in boxes at an off-site storage unit. Minutes have not been provided to the county despite a request to do so.
• A database of prospective visitors who have requested travel literature is not shared with the Jackson tourism agency, despite the Jackson tourism agency sharing all of its leads with Cashiers.
The heart of the issue is how best to spend tourism-tax revenue. A 3 percent tax on overnight lodging in the county raised $440,000 last year. The money is pumped back into tourism marketing and promotions.
Tourism revenue has declined in Jackson County by 12 percent since 2006. Jackson isn’t entirely alone. The recession-driven trend was mirrored across the mountains, although to a lesser extent.
Jackson fared worse than its neighbors, experiencing steeper declines. And while surrounding counties have since rebounded to their pre-recession levels, Jackson is still down.
To improve matters, Jackson leaders plan to double the room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent. The extra revenue will mean more money to spend on marketing Jackson County as a tourism destination and hopefully in turn, increase tourism.
A majority of Jackson County commissioners have voiced support for increasing the room tax, with four of the five in favor of the plan.
The debate has now turned to whether there should be a single tourism authority to steer marketing efforts and provide oversight for how the tourism-tax revenue is spent.
Currently, the room tax is split between the Cashiers tourism agency and the Jackson tourism agency. Cashiers gets 75 percent of the lodging tax generated in the Cashiers area — which amounted to $177,000 last year. The remaining $263,000 went to the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority.
By joining forces, the two could save on overhead and administration, freeing up more dollars to spend on marketing, Wooten said.
“Sometimes I think we get caught up in the ‘that’s way we have always done it’ mentality and this may restrict our opportunity to grow,” Wooten said.
Bumgarner would not say specifically whether she wants the Cashiers tourism agency to merge with a single countywide one, saying she would have to consult her board before sharing her views publicly.
“I would rather not get into it until we know for sure what is going on,” Bumgarner said.
But, she did say that a Cashiers-focused tourism agency is better positioned to market Cashiers than a countywide organization.
“Just being here and knowing the market and what people are looking for, it is a whole different area. We are looking for people to come up and buy million dollar homes,” Bumgarner said. “We are marketing to a whole different group I guess you would say. I felt in order to do that we needed to be able to place ads in different kind of publications.”
Running advertisements — whether in magazines, billboards, or online — is a key component of tourism marketing.
Bumgarner was unable to provide a list of where she has run ads over the past year. She said she did not keep a list of which magazines she has run ads in or what months they ran. Cashiers spends close to $60,000 a year on advertising.
“I would have to go back and think of which ones I’ve done. I don’t have time to do that. I don’t have time to go back and look at all those ads,” Bumgarner said.
Bumgarner also does not share her advertising schedule with her counterparts at the Jackson tourism entity, despite a standing request by Julie Spiro, executive director of the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority and the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. Knowing which magazines, billboards and other advertisements Cashiers has planned would allow the two entities to maximize their marketing dollars.
Initially, Bumgarner was ambiguous when asked whether she shared her advertising schedule with the Jackson tourism arm. She answered that “they have the same ad agency as us.”
When asked again whether she gave Jackson a copy of her advertising schedule, Bumgarner replied: “I am on the travel and tourism board in Jackson County also.”
When asked a third time, she said the two entities sometimes split the cost of ads in magazines. When asked a fourth time whether she shared her ad schedule with Jackson, she said, “They know our ad schedule.” When asked how, she answered, “because I sit on their TTA board.”
Finally, Bumgarner said she did not provide Spiro with Cashiers’ advertising schedule.
“I don’t give out our whole schedule … not unless they ask for it or want to see it,” Bumgarner said, adding, “It is no big secret.”
Spiro said she has asked to see it, but has never gotten one.
The Jackson tourism entity develops a marketing strategy and advertising plan for the year each spring. Bumgarner gets a copy and so does the county.
The need for niche marketing — marketing that caters to Cashiers’ unique tourist demographic — is the chief argument of Cashiers tourism leaders who want to hang on to their own tourism arm. Cashiers knows best how to market and promote Cashiers, they say.
However, Bumgarner could not provide a list of what that advertising is exactly.
About half of Cashiers’ advertising budget is managed by an ad agency. The agency is contracted to design and place ads on Cashiers’ behalf.
For the rest, Bumgarner places the ads herself. She is able to take advantage of last minute discounts on ad space or buy ads to promote special events that come up over the course of the year, she said.
Bumgarner referred questions about those specific ads to the county finance office, however, which pays the bills when invoices for the ads come in.
Most of the invoices, however, don’t include the name of the magazine, nor the month that an ad ran. The invoices are sent by publishing companies that usually have numerous magazines under their umbrella.
A review of advertising invoices from the ad agency for Cashiers show that it places ads in four magazines over the course of the year for Cashiers: AAA Go, AAA Going Places, Blue Ridge Country and Southern Living. The Jackson tourism entity ran ads in those same publications, according to a review of invoices held by the county finance office.
When a prospective tourist requests information about the area, tourist entities mail out a packet of brochures and guides designed to seal the deal on coming to visit.
The Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority shares every inquiry it gets with Sue Bumgarner, the head of the Cashiers tourism arm.
That way, Cashiers can send out its own Cashiers-tailored literature and brochures to prospective tourists, in addition to what’s being sent out on behalf of the whole county, said Spiro. Spiro shares responses that come in from magazine ads, as well as a database of people who have called or emailed to request travel information.
“If I get leads from AAA Go, Blue Ridge Parkway, Southern Living, I just forward those to (Bumgarner) because I don’t know if she has those leads or not, so I just share the leads with her,” Spiro said.
Bumgarner, however, does not share inquiries coming in to the Cashiers office with the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority. Bumgarner was vague initially when asked whether she shared visitor inquires with Spiro. At first, she said “yes.”
But when asked specifically how she shared the inquiries, Bumgarner said that she actually did not share inquires that came in from magazine ads — she only shares inquires from people who call or email asking for travel information.
“Yes, we share those. We email them back and forth,” Bumgarner said.
However, Spiro said she has not received any leads or visitor inquires from Cashiers barring a few times in early 2010 from one of Bumgarner’s assistants. But that person left, and since then, Spiro has not gotten any inquiries from Cashiers despite asking for them from time to time.
Upon further questioning, Bumgarner said she shared inquires with members of the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce who pay an extra fee for the inquiry list.
“We send it out to our members that pay to get the inquiry list every week,” Bumgarner said.
Inns, cabin rentals, golf courses and the like can use the inquiry list to send out their own brochures, peppering the prospective tourists with a litany of travel literature in hopes of luring them to their particular establishment.
But, the list isn’t available for non-chamber members.
“You can’t have it, not from us,” Bumgarner said.
Other tourism entities that get tax dollars for marketing make the inquiry list available to all accommodations owners, since they all help collect the tax.
“The accommodation owners are provided it free of charge,” Spiro said of the inquiry list produced by the Jackson tourism agency.
The Cashiers visitor center does not keep an exact record of how many walk-in visitors come through its doors.
Bumgarner pegged foot traffic at the visitor center as “close to 10,000” so far this year. Most visitor centers, including those in Maggie Valley, Waynesville and Sylva, use a clicker to count walk-in traffic.
Cashiers uses estimates. Bumgarner was initially vague about the methodology for tracking visitors.
“Just by, you know, daily counts,” Bumgarner said.
When asked specifically whether her office used a clicker to count each person, Bumgarner replied, “we just estimate at the end of the day. I just kind of check off at the end of the day how many we had.”
As for telephone calls or web hits?
“Oh Lord, I have no clue on those,” Bumgarner said.
The visitor center run by the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce in Sylva keeps an exact count of daily walk-in traffic, telephone calls, email inquiries, web page views and downloads.
“All those mediums are ways we can track how well marketing is and is not working,” Spiro said.
Tracking the number of inquiries and traffic from month to month and year to year also provides a picture over time of whether tourism is trending up or down. Bumgarner did not have tracking data accessible to share, saying that it was not saved on her computer but instead existed only on paper and was located in boxes at an off-site storage unit.
Bumgarner also was unable to provide minutes from past tourism board meetings. She said she does not save notes or minutes from the meetings on her computer. Bumgarner said she types up the minutes from hand-written notes, prints them out, then deletes the file, keeping only the hard copy.
Bumgarner did not have copies of back minutes readily available, however. They are kept in boxes at an offsite storage unit and would be difficult to pull out, Bumgarner said. They are all mixed in with boxes of magazines, Bumgarner said.
The minutes are supposed to provide a record of what the Cashiers tourism board discusses at its quarterly meetings.
The board is charged with developing and guiding a tourism marketing strategy — finding the best way to spend the roughly $180,000 a year in tax dollars allocated to promote Cashiers.
As a public entity, the Cashiers tourism board is required by law to keep minutes of its meetings and share them with the public upon request.
County officials asked Bumgarner to start providing minutes from the Cashiers tourism board meeting earlier this year, but still have not received any.
The Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority shares a copy of its meeting minutes with the county.
Doing so keeps the county apprised of the what the Jackson tourism entity is up to — spelling out its marketing strategy, plan and vision and a snapshot of its activities from the month.
Cashiers’ failure to do likewise is in violation of the county’s original legislation that first created the Cashier Travel and Tourism Authority. By law, both Jackson and Cashiers tourism arms are supposed to provide quarterly reports to the county of its activities. This mandate was included in the original legislation creating the two entities in 1987.
Shortly after county commission Chairman Jack Debnam took office in January, he asked both tourism boards to start making the quarterly reports. Spiro, who already provided copies of her board meeting minutes to the county, began producing quarterly activity reports as well.
Bumgarner does neither. County Manager Chuck Wooten believes Cashiers is not satisfying the county requirement for quarterly reports on their activity.
“It seems to be there would be at least some understanding or expectation they would at least update commissioners on what activities they are doing to try to improve and increase travel and tourism in the county,” Wooten said.
The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and the separate Cashiers Chamber of Commerce get a cut of the tourism tax dollars to carry out the job of tourism promotion.
The Cashiers Chamber of Commerce gets $60,000 a year from the Cashiers tourism agency. It accounts for 40 percent of the Cashiers Chambers total budget of $146,000.
Jackson Chamber of Commerce gets $72,000 a year in room tax dollars, plus another $9,000 a year in rent to subsidize the overhead of the visitor center.
If the separate Jackson and Cashiers tourism arms were merged into a single countywide entity, the respective chambers of commerce would most likely continue getting their cut of the room tax money.
“There is no reason to think you wouldn’t continue to utilize the chambers to do those thing you have to do on the ground to distribute the brochures to answer the telephone to run the visitors bureau,” Wooten said. “Someone has to provide the services they currently provide, so my belief is the chambers would continue providing these services and receive support accordingly.”
Wooten said the county would like to see a formal contract outlining the arrangement with the chambers, however.
“There should be some kind of written understanding of what the expectations are in return for the funds provided,” Wooten said.
The Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority has not voted on a contract with the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce since 1987, Bumgarner said, despite the dollar amount awarded to the Cashiers Chamber increasing over the years.
If the plan goes through, the two tourism entities that oversee tourism tax dollars for their respective regions — the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority and the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority — would be dissolved and a single entity formed in its place.
Wooten has floated the idea of a nine-member countywide tourism board with cross-county representation.
Though perhaps it’s not exactly the moveable feast Ernest Hemingway discovered in the cafés of Paris, the ambiance of The Coffee Shop in Sylva suits local writer Dawn Gilchrist-Young just fine.
It is here, in this 84-year-old, family owned, down-home restaurant strategically positioned near Sylva’s paper plant, Jackson Paper Manufacturing, that the Swain County native writes much of her work. One short story is now garnering national attention. “The Tender Branch” is this year’s winner of the High School Teachers Writing Award from the Norman Mailer Center.
Each morning, for two or so hours, The Coffee Shop customers such as Teresa Coward would notice the slim, studious-looking woman in one of the café’s bright orange-plastic booths, drinking cups of coffee with cream. A cup of coffee costs $1.25 at The Coffee Shop, including a refill; a side of apple, cherry, coconut, lemon or chocolate pie adds $2.50 to the tab.
“It’s home here,” says Coward, nodding in ready understanding as to why a writer would choose The Coffee Shop over some of the town’s more uptown, upscale café options.
Gilchrist-Young, caffeine satiated, would move on to write until noon at the public library. She didn’t want to command a table in the small café for too much time each day, inconveniencing owner Phyllis Gibson or waitresses such as Chessa Hoyle, livelihood-dependent on collecting the quarter and dollar tips left by appreciative, but working-class, customers.
This café is no stranger to Western North Carolina’s literati, at least the homegrown kind. Hoyle serves Sylva writer Gary Carden everyday. The late John Parris, of the “Roaming the Mountains” Asheville Citizen-Times column fame, was a regular here, too.
These days Gilchrist-Young calls the Village of Forest Hills in Cullowhee home. She lives there with her stonemason husband, Eric. Their daughter, Aaron, is attending Warren Wilson College.
The Norman Mailer award will put this unassuming writer, who has worked as an English teacher at Swain County High School for 14 years, on stage with former President Bill Clinton, Elie Wiesel and Tina Brown, Newsweek’s editor in chief; and conceivably even Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones fame. Like Gilchrist-Young, Richards is a recipient of a Norman Mailer Center award, in his case for his recent book, Life.
Gilchrist-Young and the other Norman Mailer award winners will be at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City on Nov. 8. Additionally, she won $10,000 and a month next summer at the Norman Mailer Writers’ Colony in Provincetown, Mass.
Gilchrist-Young is a meticulous craftsperson. Her story was one of but two written a couple summers ago. Each story required two months to complete, the length basically of this schoolteacher’s annual summer break.
“The Tender Branch” delivers on the tenderness promised in the title. But the story is equally rich in the horrors attendant for women immersed in domestic violence. That violence is presented here simply as True Fact: the story seems to say, ‘You see, this is how many women live, but that is not the whole of them.’
Gilchrist-Young’s story is set in Haywood County: Canton, to be exact.
“My grandma was mean, but I’m not mean like her, just vengeful like her, vengeful like a cat you’ve left locked in the house all day and thinking everything is fine until you come home and there’s a pile of shit right on your pillow,” her character says in a moment of raw self description.
Gilchrist-Young writes only in the summer. The remainder of her time is spent — and this is not purple prose, not hyperbole, but simple conveyance of more True Fact — giving of her talents and herself to the kids attending Swain County High School. She was once given a year’s sabbatical from Swain to teach at Western Carolina University, a 12-month gift, she says, from then Swain Principal Janet Clapsaddle and the local school board. They wanted this talented woman to find herself, to assess whether she’d be happiest teaching at the university level, or returning once again to Swain’s classrooms.
Gilchrist-Young opted for the latter, deciding that the high school needed her, the college did not; she notes this must mean she needs to be needed.
So Gilchrist-Young, each school day, walks into Swain County High School. And by her simple presence demonstrates that a homebred girl, who would marry at 18 and who was raised in a singlewide trailer in the Euchella community with four brothers and sisters by working-class parents, Wretha and Robert Gilchrist, is at the same time a sophisticated, highly educated woman. Her resume includes Columbia University and an MFA from Warren Wilson. And, of course, and maybe this is the most important True Fact about Gilchrist-Young, is a living, breathing, in-the-flesh writer the kids can talk to each day.
One’s upbringing is a part, not the whole; it is through parts, however, that we create a whole — that is Gilchrist-Young’s message to her students and one seemingly delivered through her writings.
“This is a Southern Appalachian woman,” Gilchrist-Young says of herself, an exclamation point on a conversation that includes discussions about stereotyping of mountain people, the suffocation of being dubbed a “regional” writer, and the equally True Fact that Swain County and other local school systems were (often but not always perhaps for everyone) truly wonderful places for aspiring writers, artists and musicians to find themselves growing up.
Finding the energy to both teach high school English and write is clearly a family hand-me-down, “the Gilchrist work ethic” personified, as husband Eric Young describes it.
Her father, now in his mid-70s, gets up at 4 a.m. and does masonry until his body gives out, sometime in the afternoon or evening.
“If he doesn’t work, he doesn’t feel like he’s living,” Gilchrist-Young says.
Her mother stayed home with the children, three girls and two boys, plus worked some in local factories and in the school’s cafeteria.
When the couple built a room onto their trailer, her father added bookshelves on either side of the fireplace. He and wife Wretha ordered a set of “The World’s 100 Greatest Classics” to fill the shelves. This was, for the most part, a family of readers.
“We were surrounded by these great writers,” Gilchrist-Young says. “Dostoevsky, Austen.”
The young girl would select books based on her attraction to the titles. “The Scarlet Pimpernel” she found offensive; “Sense and Sensibility,” on the other hand, had an attractive alliteration, and she discovered through that simple siren song the world of Jane Austen.
Her father, a Zane Grey zealot, passed his love for Grey’s Westerns and adventure stories on to his daughter, and “Riders of the Purple Sage” would become, as would her mother’s Ellery Queen mysteries, future literary touchstones.
There were nightly Bible readings. The sonorous prose of the King James version of the Bible became yet another touchstone for Gilchrist-Young. It would influence her writing ear as it has so many others. More deeply imbedded than even her parent’s love for literature — and the Bible, which in that household was not literature but True Fact — was the Gilchrist code, which goes something like this:
“There is an authority that is higher than law, and a goodness that is more important than anything else.”
Jackson County commissioners won’t allow alcohol to be served during private functions at the newly renovated historic courthouse and library.
Library supporters have been marketing the venue as an ideal spot for receptions, weddings and other functions as a way to raise extra money for the library. Not being able to serve alcohol could make the facility less attractive to private groups.
But county commissioners feared a slippery slope.
“If we open the door and allow one particular facility, I believe you’ll get additional requests,” County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners this week.
The county is in the process of crafting a lease for the library building, which is county-owned but run by the Fontana Regional Library system. The alcohol issue had to be settled for the lease to move forward.
In a moment of absolute and somewhat rare unanimity, commissioners voted against allowing alcohol at the library as a county-owned building. Commissioner Mark Jones, who lives in Cashiers, said he’d recently received two requests that alcoholic beverages be allowed at Albert Carlton Library during events there, too — offered as evidence that a flood of requests could follow if the alcoholic-beverage door was cracked open.
County Attorney Jay Coward said the libraries, as well as other entities using county buildings, had long operated under handshake agreements.
“We are trying to formalize these leases … so everybody understands what the ground rules are,” Wooten said.
Chairman Jack Debnam said he objected to allowing alcoholic beverages to be served at the new library for two reasons.
“The library is competing against the private sector if they are leasing the facility and serving alcohol. I don’t think we need to get in that part of it,” he said. “And, second, where do we stop? What if they wanted to serve alcohol at the Golden Age Center? Suppose they want to serve alcohol over here at the baseball fields one day? Where do we stop?”
Commissioner Joe Cowan said that concerned him, too.
“This brings in the whole aspect of public schools,” Cowan said, adding that he also felt uncomfortable about the liability issue.