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Wednesday, 30 March 2011 19:08

New TDA visitor center will leave Haywood Chamber with funding woes

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Less than a year after opening a new visitor center in downtown Waynesville, the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce learned last week that its funding for the site is on the chopping block by the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

The county tourism agency plans to open its own visitor center downtown and end its subsidy for the one run by the chamber.

The tourism agency is better positioned to operate a one-stop shop for tourists looking for things to do and see in the county, according to TDA Director Lynn Collins.

“Our sole purpose in life is to market Harwood County as a destination,” Collins said.

It makes sense for the TDA, which is in charge of branding and marketing the county, to run its own visitor center for tourists to provide a seamless message rather than contract the role out to the chamber.

“This is a good time for us to take control of our program and tell our story the way we want to tell it,” Collins said.

The chamber received $30,000 from the TDA to run a visitor center. Losing that revenue will not be easy and could mean the loss of staff, according to CeCe Hipps, the Haywood chamber’s executive director.

“Anytime an organization gets that big of a budget cut, we will have to look at how we do our day-to-day operations,” Hipps said.

The chamber says it will not shut down its visitor center, however, despite the loss of funding. A visitor center is still central to the chamber’s mission, Hipps said.

“Chambers are considered a trusted and established source of information,” Hipps said. “Regardless of the outcome of this we will maintain our visibility and maintain our visitor center. Nothing will change for us from that aspect.”

The result: two visitor centers less than three blocks apart in downtown Waynesville.

The turn of events comes as the Tourism Development Authority grapples with budget shortfalls of its own. The TDA raises money with a 4 percent tax on overnight lodging, bringing in close to $1 million a year. That money is pumped back into tourism promotions, from national advertising campaigns to mini-grants for local festivals.

As tourism has dropped with the recession, however, the TDA has seen its budget shrink by more than $200,000 in three years. This year alone, the TDA has come up $115,000 short of what it anticipated, leaving the agency struggling to make mid-year budget cuts.

“We didn’t just wake up one morning and say ‘Let’s go take the chamber’s funding away from it.’ There is a quite a bit of planning and pros and cons and up and down that when into this,” said Ken Stahl, TDA finance chair.

However, the chamber learned only last week that its visitor center funding is in jeopardy with the start of the new fiscal year come July. Such short notice will make it hard to adjust, Hipps said.

Key members of the chamber board and TDA board met last week to discuss the issue. Ron Leatherwood, the incoming president of the chamber board, said the TDA might be willing to phase out the visitor center funding over two years rather than doing it all at once. That would certainly soften the blow, he said.

The visitor center funding is more than 10 percent of the chamber’s annual budget, and it will be a challenge to make up the difference, Leatherwood said.

But Leatherwood said he understands why the TDA, which is in the tourism business after all, wants its own visitor center. If they can serve the number of visitors they hope to — 40,000 a year — it will surely be a good thing for the county, Leatherwood said.

“Hopefully it will be successful for all of us. A rising tide lifts all boats,” Leatherwood said.

 

A full-service visitor center

The TDA envisions a full-service visitor center, where tourists will be awed by an endless list of things to do in Haywood County, from crafts to fly-fishing to motorcycle rides. Not to mention a clearinghouse for all the special events going on any given weekend, something that doesn’t exist now.

“We hope to achieve a little bit of synergism here,” said Stahl.

And since the TDA lives and breathes tourism, it can best disseminate that information, Collins said.

“We have a very good handle on what is going on in the county,” Collins said.

Collins also wants their visitor center to be open seven days a week, compared to the chamber’s visitor center, which is only open on weekdays.

The TDA is negotiating a lease to house the visitor center and its administrative offices in a storefront on Main Street across from Mast General store — in the thick of the downtown action. It’s a better spot for snagging foot traffic than the chamber’s location, Stahl said.

Stahl hopes a new visitor center will catch 40,000 visitors a year compared to the 6,000 seen at the chamber’s visitor center.

“When the foot traffic is in the thousands up there on Main Street, it is an opportunity for us to reach out and touch a lot more people than what we have been for essentially the same amount of money,” Stahl said.

The chamber’s visitor center is past the courthouse in a historic home a block beyond the main shopping district. To Hipps, the location is ideal: at the corner where Russ Avenue, a main corridor into downtown, feeds into Main Street.

The chamber just moved into the building last June. It had been without a permanent home for much of the past decade, bopping from one location to another every few years. A visible spot for the visitor center was the top consideration in the quest for a permanent site.

“That was our main driver. We wanted to have a gateway into the downtown area,” Hipps said.

The chamber’s physical quarters are impressive and inviting. The stately historic brick home has a wide front porch decked out in rocking chairs. The lobby has a grand double staircase and features include hardwood floors and black-and-white checked bathroom tiles. Its interior décor is appointed with comfy sofas and lush ferns. The front lawn is crowned by stately oaks with views down Main Street.

“We wanted something that would give people a really good first impression,” Hipps said.

The chamber made a sizeable investment when signing a three-year lease on the building.

Hipps said tourists quickly make themselves at home there.

“Finding the perfect home for a visitor center was so key. Had we known this a year ago we probably would have looked at other options,” Hipps said.

 

Move in the cards

Until now, the TDA has been holed up in an obscure county office building carrying out a mostly administrative role. Few in the county could tell you where the agency was headquartered, despite its very showy mission of broadcasting Haywood’s tourism accolades to the world.

Despite a sweetheart deal — the county charged the TDA only $250 a month in rent — the TDA had been contemplating a move to new offices for a couple of years.

But it was spurred recently into action by a massive reshuffling of county office space — one that might leave the TDA with no home at all.

Most of the occupants housed in the same office building as TDA are moving to an abandoned Wal-Mart being remodeled for various county departments. The project was motivated by the need to replace the antiquated quarters of the Department of Social Services but has led to musical chairs for other county offices as well.

The county hasn’t decided yet whether TDA can stay where it is, whether it might give the space to different county departments, or whether it will sell the building.

While it’s not certain TDA will get the boot, it was enough to get the TDA’s attention.

“They have not said definitively we have to move any certain time. Their exact words from the county manager were it would be prudent for you to start looking,” Collins said.

It seemed like a good time to pull the trigger on something they wanted to do anyway.

“We don’t want to wait until the music stops and not have a chair,” Stahl said.

If the TDA is going to fork out substantially more in rent, it will cut into its already tight budget. To make it work financially, the TDA will take visitor center funding away from the chamber to cover the rent, bringing visitor enter operations in-house in the process.

“If we are going to move we want to move into something that totally completes our mission,” said Alice Aumen, chair of the TDA board.

Part of that mission is to bring the TDA to the next level as an agency.

Since the TDA’s creation 25 years ago, it has funded visitor centers run by both the Haywood chamber and Maggie Valley chamber.

While it made sense for the TDA to outsource visitor center operations in its infancy — in the early days it had no staff of its own let alone an office — it has grown into a major marketing force for tourism and needs to take a leading role in serving tourists once they arrive.

There’s another advantage to running its own visitor center: to advance marketing research, Collins said. Currently, TDA staff responsible for marketing the county don’t interface directly with the traveling public on a daily basis. Collins wants to survey visitors and find out what brought them here, where they are from, how much they are spending, who’s in the traveling party, and what they like to do.

“It helps us get to know our visitors better. We can conduct all kinds of market research to build our marketing program appropriately,” Collins said. “If you don’t have research you are flying by the seat of your pants.”

The days of shotgun advertising is over, said Aumen.

“This is a huge opportunity for us to do research on who the actual visitor is,” Aumen said.

Plus, TDA can capture the email addresses of visitors, which are worth their weight in gold for direct marketing through social media like Facebook.

While the TDA is in the business of luring visitors to the county, there’s still an advantage to engaging those who are already here.

“Even though they are already here, we can get information in their hands that would make them want to extend their stay or come back for a visit at another point in the year,” Collins said.

 

Fulfilling a mission

Before moving in to its new office last year, the chamber invited the TDA to share the space. The two entities could run a joint visitor center and share overhead expenses, Hipps suggested.

Talk of co-locating the chamber and TDA have surfaced on and off over the years, but this marked the first formal invitation to the TDA to move in together.

“We wanted to continue and strengthen our partnership and to continue to work together and collaborate,” Hipps said.

Hipps said the two entities have the same common goal, namely “to promote Haywood County.”

It’s common for chambers of commerce and county tourism agencies to share offices and staff while maintaining separate budgets. It’s done in Asheville to the east and Jackson County to the west.

But co-locating with the chamber did not fit the TDA’s mission.

While tourism is the TDA’s only focus, the chamber recruits new businesses, promotes commerce, supports entrepreneurs and engages in economic development.

“A visitor center is not their primary mission,” Stahl said.

But Hipps said tourism is integral to the county’s economy, and thus integral to the chamber’s mission.

“Our model has always been everyone in this county is connected to tourism,” Hipps said. “We can’t dissect and separate the chamber from tourism.”

That said, the chamber’s visitor center does serve as a point of contact for people moving to Haywood County, buying a second home, relocating their business, starting a new business — all of whom may have started out as just a tourist at one time.

“We are so connected with the big picture that the overall economic impact is much greater than the numbers for foot traffic that comes through the door,” Hipps said. “Our business model is all inclusive.”

The chamber’s visitor center is critical a point of contact for business inquiries, said Leatherwood. You never know when a “lone eagle” will stroll into the visitor center, for example. That term refers to a mobile professional who can do their job online from anywhere and may be seeking a new place to move, Leatherwood said.

 

A county of many visitor centers

The visitor center run by the Haywood Chamber is one of four funded by the TDA.

“We are probably the only TDA in the state that funds four visitor centers,” Stahl said.

One in Maggie Valley run by the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce gets $30,000 a year from the TDA. The other two — one at the highway rest area in Balsam and one off the interstate in Canton — are staffed by the TDA at a cost of $25,000 each.

The Canton visitor center was opened only three years ago, but tourist traffic there has not panned out. A cinderblock car wash beside a gas station was converted into a visitor center.

Faced with a budget shortfall last spring, the TDA shut the Canton visitor center for six weeks. Traffic had fallen sharply anyway due to a rockslide that shut down I-40. But even once I-40 opened again, numbers remained low. In the fall, hours were scaled back, and in January it was shut completely. The TDA plans to turn it over to volunteers with the Canton merchant association.

The visitor centers in Maggie Valley and at Balsam draw higher numbers of visitors (see chart). Neither is on the chopping block for now.

The TDA will continue funding the visitor centers that perform better, but could not justify funding those that saw such a small number of visitors, Stahl said.

Hipps said the chamber is grateful for TDA support all these years and believes the two entities will continue to work together.

“We have a very successful business model here. TDA has been a part of that success by helping to fund that part of what we do,” Hipps said.

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