Jackson commissioners declare time’s up on wrangling over new tourism structure

fr jacksoncommissionersA festering disagreement over how to overhaul Jackson County’s tourism agency is coming to an end, but some lodging owners who have resisted the changes aren’t happy about it.

The major sticking point: how much autonomy should the new county tourism agency wield over the roughly $484,000 collected in tourism tax dollars annually? That amount should go up to about $650,000 a year once the lodging tax is raised from 3 to 4 percent.

In the past, the tourism industry has controlled the money, but questions over whether it was being spent wisely led county commissioners to pursue an entirely new structure.

Instead of two tourism agencies — one for Cashiers and one for the county as a whole — there will now only be one.

“Obviously what we have done in the past has not worked and we need to get beyond that and start pulling together to get Jackson County back into competitive mode with the people around us,” Commissioner Doug Cody said.

There are also a host of other changes (see accompanying box). But the one that has caused the most ire among the lodging industry is a new level of oversight by county commissioners.

Machinations over how the new county tourism agency would operate and who would serve on it have played out for more than a year. A vocal contingent of lodging owners has resisted most of the changes being proposed.

County Commissioner Chairman Jack Debnam said the views of the lodging industry have been listened to and well-noted over the past year, but it was time to move on.

At a commissioner meeting two weeks ago, Clifford Meads, manager of the High Hampton Inn in Cashiers — who has emerged as a spokesperson for the greater Cashiers tourism industry — mounted final objections to the now-imminent changes, but was shot down.

“We have talked about it many times, and we have had the same differences every time,” Debnam said, addressing Meads. “We have talked and talked and everybody has had the chance for their input.”

“I am trying to show you the light before something like this happens,” Mead replied. “Talk about a structure that is lost from the very beginning — in my estimation you are looking at it.”

Meads conveyed reservations about the tourism director falling under the county manager’s chain of command. Meads believes the county tourism director should answer only to the tourism board.

He also lodged objections to tourism board members being appointed by commissioners.

“There are a fair number of people out there who don’t want to be bound by the county commissioners,” Meads said, suggesting not enough people would step forward to serve on such a tourism board.

Cody disagreed.

“I think it is silly to think we can’t find 15 people who would look beyond their own individual self interests to promote us as a whole,” Cody said. “That would disappoint me immensely if everyone got on there and stared looking after their own individual self interests.”

Tourism leaders in Jackson County fear that if commissioners get too much control over the tourism board, however, they could steer tourism dollars toward their own pet projects.

While tourism dollars historically were narrowly focused on advertising and marketing, counties have increasingly branched out in their tourism strategy in recent years. Swain County is spending some of its tourism dollars augmenting the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad operations in Bryson City and building an artificial rapid on the Nantahala River to host kayaking competitions. 

Haywood County has spent some of its tourism dollars clearing overgrown trees along Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks to improve views. And Buncombe County has spent tourist dollars building a major soccer complex that attracts tournaments and teams from across the South.


Commissioner oversight

At stake is around $650,000 in tourism tax dollars that is pumped back in to luring more tourists to Jackson County. A tug-of-war over the best way to spend those tourism dollars is not uncommon in counties across the state. And it’s easy to see why.

The expenditures have a direct bearing on the success and livelihood of those in the tourism business.

For example, lodging owners in Cashiers may prefer tourism dollars go toward advertising their community in golf magazines and resort guides. Meanwhile, Dillsboro shop owners would rather see economic assistance for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad to bring back the scenic tourist train. And Jackson’s outdoors industry may prefer money to be spent printing hiking, fly-fishing and rafting brochures.

In Jackson County, those types of decisions for years occurred outside county control and oversight and instead were left up to inner circles of the tourism industry — primarily those in the lodging business.

Under the changes, county commissioners would take on a small — albeit indirect — role. Namely, commissioners would appoint members to the county’s tourism board.

While the tourism board would still ultimately decide how to spend tourism dollars, commissioners could indirectly influence tourism strategy and objectives by who they appoint.

 “This puts anywhere from $500,000 to $1.2 million into the potential control of the future commissioners,” said County Commissioner Mark Jones, who works in the tourism industry as an assistant manager at High Hampton Inn in Cashiers.

Jones has been the lone commissioner to speak out against the county taking a role in tourism activities. But Debnam said it is the commissioners’ responsibility.

“It all comes down to the fact that this is county tax dollars. People look at us when the tax money is spent. They aren’t going to be looking at the (tourism) board,” Debnam said.

Philosophical points aside, allowing the tourism board to appoint its own members doesn’t jibe with state policy for tourism authorities. State policy governing the structure of tourism boards stipulates that county commissioners “shall” make the board appointments.

“The way I read that is it is imperative,” said County Attorney Jay Coward. “Not ‘may,’ but ‘shall.’”

The tourism board can offer up the names of people they want to be appointed to their board, but the county commissioners would have the final say.

“There is no county or town I could find where the elected board has delegated that authority away,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said. “So this is nothing unusual.”

Another major battle line was whether the county tourism director would be under the county manager’s chain of command. That’s another point tourism leaders differ from commissioners on.

County commissioners offered a compromise in the dispute: the tourism director will answer to the tourism board on all matters related to tourism, but to the county manager of matters of county personnel policy.

The two-boss arrangement is unusual for county tourism directors. Most directors in the region report only to the tourism authority board. Typically the board has sole authority to hire — or should it be necessary — to fire the tourism director.

Under Jackson structure, however, a five-person personnel committee will hire the director and be in charge of performance reviews. The committee will include the county manager, the county human resources director and three members from the tourism board. The county manager has the ultimate say, however. Should the committee disagree on whether the tourism director is doing a good job, the county manager’s opinion trumps the committee’s.

County commissioners will hold one last public hearing Monday, Nov. 5 — one of several since the issue first arose a year ago — but it seems the majority of commissioners plan to move forward with the proposal as it stands.

“We’ve beat this horse to death. It is time to move on and it is time to vote on the tax and establish the committee,” Debnam said.



From whole cloth: A new tourism authority in the making

Jackson County commissioners will vote this month to create a new county tourism authority. The authority will develop and steer a tourism strategy for attracting visitors to Jackson County. It will also decide how to spend roughly $650,000 collected annually from a tax on overnight lodging to further tourism.

Here’s what the new tourism authority will look like, and how it will differ from the current set-up.

The tax on overnight lodging will increase from 3 to 4 percent.

The tourism board will be comprised of 15 members. Five must be from the lodging industry in the greater Cashiers area and five from the lodging industry in the rest of Jackson County. Three must be from other tourism-related businesses, such as attractions, outfitters, galleries or retail shops, with at least one of those from the Cashiers area. The remaining two seats on the board will go to representatives from the Jackson Chamber of Commerce and Cashiers Chamber of Commerce.

County commissioners will make appointments to the board, but the board can submit a preferred list of names for consideration.

The county tourism director will answer to the tourism board on all matters related to tourism, but will answer to the county manager on personnel issues.

There will be a single, countywide tourism development authority. Currently, the county has two tourism agencies — one serving Cashiers and one serving Jackson County as a whole. 

The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and Cashiers Chamber of Commerce will continue to operate visitor centers, and presumably will continue to get a cut of tourism tax dollars for visitor operations.

One-third of the tourism tax dollars can be spent on tourism-related projects if OK’d by county commissioners. Before, tourism tax dollars were limited solely to marketing and promotions, such as billboards, magazine ads, brochures, visitor center operations and vacation guides.

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