The tourism authority is a nine-member board appointed by the county commissioners to oversee some $600,000 collected through a 3 percent tax on overnight lodging. Most communities in WNC collect taxes from tourists on overnight lodging. Permission to collect the tax is granted by the state legislature, which has to pass a special bill approving the tax for each county that wants it.
The special bill allowing for the tax also spells out who will oversee it: the number of tourism board members, who appoints them, and what if any sectors the board members must represent. If critics of the tourism authority want to change any of those things, they must go to Raleigh and get the tourist tax legislation from 20 years ago amended.
That means finding a state legislator from the region who will agree to introduce such a bill on a clearly hot topic item. Before most legislators are willing to do that, they want a formal request from the county commissioners and town boards, which signals the bill is in the interest of their local constituents.
But before the county commissioners or town boards can make a formal request to the legislature, the tourism community must decide what it wants. And there are a lot of decisions to make.
At the top of the list is whether Haywood County wants to continue with one tourism authority for the whole county, or whether Maggie Valley and Waynesville want to go their separate ways and set up their own tourism authorities. In counties where just one town serves as the tourism hub — like Brevard in Transylvania County or Hendersonville in Henderson County — one countywide tourism authority is the norm. In counties with distinct towns chasing different tourist markets — like Franklin and Highlands in Macon County or Boone and Blowing Rock in Watauga County — each community has an independent tourism authority.
Another big decision is whether the tourism authority should be tied to the chamber of commerce. In many communities, the tourism authority doesn’t have its own staff or office, but instead contracts with the chamber of commerce to run the promotions.
On one end of the extreme is Highlands, where there is no separate tourism authority or publicly appointed board at all. The chamber merely gets all the room tax money. At the other end of the spectrum is Blowing Rock, where the tourism authority has its own staff, runs its own visitor center and does all its own marketing. The majority are in the middle, with the tourism authority sharing chamber of commerce staff to varying degrees to implement the tourism marketing strategy for the community or share the cost of the visitor centers.
Another decision is the make-up of the tourism board. What sectors should be represented: attraction owners, motel owners, county commissioners or town council members, restaurant owners, gallery owners or average Joe’s not connected to the tourist trade? Many towns require at least one or two average people not in the tourist business. Haywood’s tourism board is one of the few stacked 100 percent with those in the tourism trade. Haywood also has the least representation from those outside the accommodations industry.
This week, we offer snapshots of how different communities oversee those room tax dollars, including:
• the make-up of their tourism board.
• who appoints the board.
• whether they have their own staff or contract with the local chamber of commerce to run tourism promotions.
• whether they have a countywide tourism authority or one for each town.
Next week, we’ll compare their budgets and how they spend them.