In the world of Haywood County tourism, a turf battle is brewing, and the fiefdoms under fire are the county’s visitor centers.
What might seem like the friendly face of local tourism has once again become a battleground where funding dollars are the ultimate prize, and the most recent conflict has flared over Canton’s visitor center. It’s a small building, situated just off Interstate 40 on Champion Drive, in what was once a car wash. It has been closed on and off for the past year as the county’s tourism agency struggled with funding shortfalls, and is now at risk of having the plug pulled completely.
The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority plans to shift funding for the Canton visitor center, which sees little traffic, to a new, flagship visitor center on Main Street in downtown Waynesville with the promise of reaching more people.
Canton Mayor Pat Smathers has spoken out against the funding cut, pointing out the Canton visitor center’s proximity to I-40, making it more visible than any of the other three visitor centers in the county.
“I think a big push ought to be made to make that the premier center in the county, not just because it’s Canton, but because that’s the main corridor in the county,” said Smathers. “More visitors come in contact with I-40 than with any other place in the county and that visitors center should be a place to stop people and be able to funnel them into Maggie Valley, into Waynesville, Cruso, Canton, Clyde — everywhere in the county.”
Smathers said he’d be disappointed if the Canton center was relegated in favor of TDA’s newer Waynesville visitor center.
“I don’t know why we’re going to put more visitor centers up in Waynesville and not fund the one here on the main corridor,” Smathers said.
The visitor center isn’t Canton’s only bone to pick with the TDA. At last week’s TDA meeting, it was highlighted that a new map put out by the tourism agency showcased Waynesville and Maggie Valley as the only towns in the county. Canton didn’t even make an appearance. Neither did Clyde.
TDA Executive Director Lynn Collins defended the map, saying that listed locations were given to those who bought ad space.
TDA makes amends with Haywood Chamber
Canton isn’t the only visitor center to lose funding to make way for TDA’s new endeavor. The tourism agency announced it would ax $30,000 in funding a year for a Waynesville visitor center operated by the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce — diverting the money to its own visitor center instead.
While the TDA’s new visitor center will be mere blocks from the one run by the chamber, the chamber plans to keep operating its visitor center anyway — resulting in two visitor centers three blocks apart.
Pleas from the chamber of commerce not to yank its funding so suddenly convinced the TDA board to partially reverse course. The TDA board decided last week to restore partial funding to the tune of $13,000 for the coming fiscal year, but not without some dissension among board members.
TDA board member Lyndon Lowe questioned the decision, especially in light of the Canton visitor center predicament.
“Canton’s visitor center we say that we don’t have money for but we’re going to subsidize the one here?” Lowe asked fellow board members before voting against the funding.
Marion Hamel agreed, saying she would feel more comfortable with a smaller amount.
“I feel that $13,000 is putting us over the edge,” said Hamel, who represents Maggie Valley on the TDA. “I understand the rationale behind it, I just wish that it wasn’t as much money as it is.”
Jennifer Duerr, TDA board member and owner of the Windover Inn, also expressed concerns over the fairness of partial funding to the chamber for its visitor center but not Canton’s.
“If we’re going to not be making an exception for one, I’m a little uncomfortable making it for another,” said Duerr.
The measure eventually passed, though not unanimously, with Hamel, Lowe and Duerr casting the only dissenting votes.
Canton fate up in the air
TDA planned to pull its staff out of the Canton visitor center in May and turn it over to volunteers to run, but not enough volunteers materialized. Total closure seemed imminent, but a rescue came through from a special pot of tourism money controlled by Canton.
A portion of tourism tax dollars are divvied up between five locales in the county to use on pet projects. Canton has elected to use $3,000 from its special pool of money to staff the visitor center through July. The TDA, however, is still calling for volunteers to help work the center at other times.
TDA board members maintain that they are committed to keeping the center open and believe in its viability.
“It is our every intention to keep that visitor center open,” said Ken Stahl, a TDA board member, but he has also noted that many driving visitors find information via GPS and Web-enabled phones, rather than through traditional highway visitor centers.
Strictly by the numbers, Canton’s center ranks third out of the county’s four visitor’s centers for actual visitors, trailing the popular Balsam center and Maggie Valley’s location.
However, Haywood County Economic Development Director Mark Clasby, who sits on the TDA, said that the Canton center should be a priority for tourism in the county.
“I think it plays an important role,” said Clasby. “Before the rock slide that we had, the numbers for the Canton visitor’s center were up. I think it’s a very important geographic location.”
Canton Town Manager Al Matthews is both the town manager in Canton and a TDA board member himself.
“The town sees the necessity and advisability of having a visitor center here,” said Matthews. “We have been working with the TDA, trying to make sure that the visitor’s center is open on a regular basis.”
The car-wash-cum-visitor’s-center may not be the only iron in the fire for Canton, though. Back in 2004, the idea for a more comprehensive visitor’s experience off I-40 in Canton was proposed, but stalled before getting funding for a feasibility study when the economy tanked two years later.
There’s talk of the concept being resurrected, however, as part of an economic development plan being crafted for the town using a grant from the N.C. Rural Center.
Matthews said that, though it’s an idea that’s on the table, it’s far too early to speculate about its practicality.
“Hypothetically that is an option, but it’s premature to say that could or should or would happen,” said Matthews.
It’s still unclear whether Canton’s current center will be able to stay open full time into the next fiscal year. Lynn Collins, TDA’s executive director, said they “were still working it out.”