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Wednesday, 26 September 2012 12:43

Jackson commissioners at odds with task force on tourism overhaul

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fr jaxtourismA tourism task force in Jackson County has spent several months formulating a major overhaul of the county’s tourism agency, but the recommendations seem to be dead-on-arrival now that they’ve landed at the county commissioners’ doorstep.

 

A majority of the county commissioners philosophically disagree with the task force on how a new county tourism agency should operate and what it should look like.

The major sticking point: how much autonomy should the county tourism agency wield over the roughly $484,000 in tourism tax dollars annually.

The money is raised from a tax on overnight lodging and is pumped back into luring more tourists. The tourism industry in general — and the lodging industry in particular — feels it is amply equipped to do the job without meddling by county commissioners.

Some commissioners, however, believe that a measure of county oversight is needed — not only to ensure the county gets the most bang for its buck but also to make sure the tourism tax dollars are being spent wisely and for the greater good.

“I think if we are using taxpayers’ money, the commissioners are responsible for it,” County Commissioner Chairman Jack Debnam said. “I don’t know how we can be expected to turn over tax money. I am not happy with that.”

Commissioner Doug Cody agreed.

“I think we need to be involved to quite a degree simply due to the fiduciary obligation there,” Cody said of county oversight.

For more than two decades, county leaders have been kept at arms length when it comes to tourism tax dollars, and the task force made it clear this month they prefer to keep things that way.

County commissioners have the final say on how the county’s new tourism agency will operate.

Nonetheless, the task force bucked the clear wishes of commissioners when making its final recommendations earlier this month.

“You asked for our best and brightest thoughts,” said Clifford Mead, manager of the High Hampton Inn in Cashiers and a member of the task force, when he presented the recommendations to county commissioners at a meeting last week.

Tourism leaders, not county commissioners, know best how to spend tourism marketing dollars, according to Mead.

“The group felt it was very important that we keep our distance from the political environment when it comes to marketing a destination,” Mead told commissioners.

At a previous task force meeting, Mead objected to what he called “force fed county control” over the new tourism agency.

 

Sticking points

One of the biggest issues is whether the new 15-member tourism board that will oversee tourism tax dollars will appoint its own members — as opposed to county commissioners appointing them. The majority of the task force was adamant that the tourism board should decide among itself who should serve on its own board.

The majority of commissioners disagree, however.

“I am not in favor of the tourism board appointing themselves,” Commissioner Charles Elders said.

Those on the board would tend toward appointing those who share their existing views, commissioners said.

“A self-perpetuating board has a tendency to remain in its comfort level with its members,” Debnam added.

Others disagree that that would be an issue, however. The sheer number of people serving on the TDA board — 15 members to be exact — would alone ensure a diversity of ideas. Furthermore, board members would serve three-year terms and be limited to serving no more than two consecutive terms.

“I think you do always have an infusion of new people with new ideas,” said Julie Spiro, director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority.

Debnam said commissioners should make the appointments — not only as a measure of oversight for how public dollars are being spent, but also to ensure the tourism interests of the county as a whole are being represented.

“The industry acts like this is their money and it is not,” Debnam said in reply to Mead at the August task force meeting. “It is a tax and the money belongs to the people of Jackson County. There are 40,000 people in Jackson County that I need to justify what I’m doing with their tax money.”

Opinions diverge on other points as well. Should the lodging industry control the majority of seats on the new tourism board?

In the past, lodging owners have had the biggest voice in how the tourism tax dollars were spent. That would remain the case under the task force proposal, which gives lodging owners two-thirds of the 15 seats on the county tourism board.

While lodging owners collect the tax from tourists, the tax is ultimately paid by the tourists themselves, and the lodging industry has no more claim to the money than other tourism sectors, Cody said.

Elders questioned whether the lodging industry should lay claim to such a large share of seats on the tourism board. Of the 15 seats on the tourism board, only three would be dedicated for other sectors of the tourism industry under the task force’s recommendations. But small business owners — art galleries, restaurants, retail shops, tourist attractions and the like — are an important part of the tourism community and equally vested in seeing the tourism tax dollars spent wisely, some commissioners believe.

“The lodging industry is not the only one that is negatively or positively affected by that,” Cody said.

Elders said board make-up would likely be among the issues commissioners “take another look at.”

“I feel like we need to get more people involved, a lot of the other smaller businesses,” Elders said.

Another issue is whether the new county tourism director will report solely to the tourism board or also answer to the county manager.

Yet another issue is whether seats on the tourism board should be split among the Cashiers area and the rest of the county. Under the task force recommendations, roughly half the seats are specifically reserved for tourism representatives from the greater Cashiers area.

A primary goal of the tourism overhaul was to bring together two separate tourism marketing arms in different parts of the county that at times failed to function in unison.

The Cashiers tourism agency had largely taken a go-it-alone approach over the past two decades, pursuing its own marketing strategy that catered to its niche, high-end tourism demographic. While the greater Jackson County tourism agency regularly kept its counterparts in Cashiers apprised of its initiatives, Cashiers did not do the same.

“One of the major objectives of this whole things was to tear down the walls the communities had built around themselves,” Commissioner Doug Cody said. “We have to I feel we have to come together as a county to be able to compete.”

Robert Jumper, the chairman of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce board, agreed.

“I think instead of everybody doing their own thing we’ll be following the same direction. We should be able to do more with less than if it was two separate entities,” Jumper said.

But Cody questioned whether divvying up seats among geographic areas would run counter to that goal.

“We’ll be in the same situation,” Cody said.

 

Back to the drawing board

These philosophical disagreements likely mean the task force recommendations won’t be adhered to by commissioners.

“I know the people who drew these recommendations up worked very hard on it,” Cody said.

“The draft that was presented to us, I don’t feel that is the end-all document. It is a starting point,” Cody said.

Not all commissioners would agree. Commissioner Mark Jones, who works in the tourism industry in Cashiers at the High Hampton Inn, sides with the task force. He said the task force has made several concessions and compromises throughout the process.

However, after several months of work by the task force, county commissioners may find themselves back at the drawing board after the task force proposal fell short of what commissioners wanted.

The commissioners had made their views known to the task force during the process. County Attorney Jay Coward acted as a liaison between the task force and commissioners to make the commissioners’ wishes known.

Coward even brought suggested wording to the task force, asking them to change parts of their proposal — namely to make commissioners in charge of appointing tourism board members and to put the tourism director within the county’s chain of command.

But task force members balked at the changes Coward inserted.

At a task force meeting in early August, Mead called Coward’s changes “unacceptable.” He said the commissioners asked the task force for its recommendations, but then told them what those recommendations should contain.

“This is everything that we were against and now we are right back to where we started from,” Mead said at the meeting. “The past four months have been wasted.”

When the task force reconvened the following week, Mead and presented a new version of the recommendations that largely removed the changes Coward had made the week before.

“Anything short of this could be a bumpy road,” Mead said when passing out the rewritten recommendations at the task force meeting.

 

How we got here

Jackson County is in the process of merging two tourism agencies into a single countywide tourism development authority. Currently, the county has two tourism agencies — one serving Cashiers and one serving Jackson County as a whole. They divvy up the tourism tax dollars collected on overnight lodging and funnel the money to their respective chambers of commerce — namely the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and Cashiers Chamber of Commerce — which in turn carry out marketing and promotions.

While the two chambers of commerce will continue much in their current form, county commissioners decided to merge the two tourism entities in hopes of creating a more cohesive approach and avoiding unnecessary duplication.

A task force comprised of tourism leaders was appointed to come up with recommendations of what the new countywide tourism agency would look like and how it would operate.

Part of the plan also calls for increasing the tax on overnight lodging from three cents to four cents, which would increase room tax collections in Jackson to more than $600,000 annually.

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