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Wednesday, 07 December 2011 13:39

Do-over an option in Jackson tourism spat

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It’s not too late for Jackson County leaders to go back to the drawing board on a state bill that consolidates the county’s two separate tourism agencies.

Commissioners have found themselves in the hot seat over a bill that would do away with the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Association and instead merge it with a single countywide entity. Cashiers tourism leaders have decried the plan. They argue that Cashiers needs its own tourism agency — with its own funding stream — to cater to its own unique visitor demographic apart from the county as a whole.

Those who support a merger believe it would be more effective, eliminating the duplication that currently exists and putting the money to wiser use.

The idea to merge the Cashiers tourism agency with the greater Jackson County Travel and Tourism Association was embedded in a bill to raise the room tax on overnight lodging from 3 to 6 percent. Raising the room tax was the chief objective of the bill and was supported by the majority of commissioners. But the origin of other parts of the bill is murky and has been blamed in part on a legislative mix up.

N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, appeared before the Jackson County commissioners this week to let them know the bill can be changed if they don’t like it. Haire even took the prerogative to bring a new, marked-up version of the bill that would undo the changes made by the previous bill passed this summer.

That seemed to irk at least one commissioner, who asked Haire why he would bother drafting changes to the bill before commissioners officially decided whether they wanted any changes. Commissioner Doug Cody was confused how the bill had been preemptively rewritten.

“Who is the author of this?” Cody asked Haire of the new version.

Haire said he took the initiative to revise the bill based on feedback he’d gotten. Feedback from whom, Cody wondered.

“I didn’t realize we were doing an opinion survey of what changes we want to see,” Cody said.

“If you don’t like it, we will throw it in the waste paper basket,” Haire said of the new version.

It became clear that in Cody’s eye, Haire had jumped the gun with new language before the majority of commissioners reached a consensus on what to do.

“I think this needs some work,” Cody said.

County Manager Chuck Wooten portrayed it as a miscommunication. Wooten said he passed along the concerns raised at the last commissioners meeting over some aspects of the bill. Haire perhaps thought the concerns were universally shared by the commissioners when in fact the only commissioner vocalizing any concerns has been Commissioner Mark Jones, who works in the Cashiers tourism industry and sits on the Cashiers tourism board.

“I believe Mr. Jones is the only one that spoke up as having these concerns,” said Wooten.

Commissioner Charles Elders said commissioners need to decide collectively how, if at all, the bill that passed should be changed.

“We need to get our thoughts and recommendations together of what we would like to see,” Elders said.

Haire said he intended the new language to simply be a “starting point.”

While commissioners said Haire was premature in penning a new bill, Haire’s point was clear. The bill can be changed — and that lands the ball and all its political repercussions squarely back in the commissioners’ court.

Until now, the county had blamed at least part of the controversy on an unintentional hiccup in the legislative process: the bill that ultimately passed in Raleigh was not what the county initially asked for.

Haire didn’t intentionally set out to introduce and get passed a different bill than what county leaders wanted. The county failed to make its request in time last spring. By the time they asked Haire for a bill to increase the room tax from 3 to 6 percent, the deadline for introducing new bills had passed. So Haire looked around for a similar bill to piggyback on. He found one from Alleghany County, which was also looking to raise its room tax, and tagged Jackson County’s name onto it as well.

But in the process, the language didn’t come out quite right, Haire said.

Commissioners had partly disowned themselves from some of the controversial parts of the bill — instead directing blame at a bureaucratic system of lawmaking.

But, Haire now says it is no problem to change it — putting commissioners on the spot to either stand behind the bill in its current form or tell Haire how they want it changed.

“I hope we can get it the way we eventually want it,” Haire told commissioners helpfully.

Haire did explain that the state’s travel and tourism branch wants to bring uniformity to the myriad of tourism bills for each county in the state, and there is pressure to use similar policies and language, he said.

Commissioners plan to take the issue up in January.

 

Concerns with the Jackson County room tax bill

Jackson County commissioners plan to increase the tax on overnight lodging from 3 to 6 percent. Doing so requires permission of the N.C. General Assembly. A special bill to increase the tax was passed in Raleigh earlier this year at the county’s request. The language in the bill calls for other changes to the county’s two tourism agencies as well, including:

• Create a single countywide tourism development authority. Currently, there are two — a Jackson County Travel and Tourism Association and a separate Cashiers Travel and Tourism Association. The Cashiers tourism arm currently gets 75 percent of the room tax generated in the Cashiers area to spend on its own marketing.

• Expand how the tourism tax revenue could be spent. Currently, the money generated from the room tax must go solely to tourism marketing and promotions. The new bill would allow money to be spent on “tourism-related activities,” including capital projects. Putting on festivals, building greenways or assisting the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad with the cost of an engine turntable could all be legal uses of the tourism revenue under the new bill.

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