Wednesday, 04 April 2012 12:49

Done deal: State law mandates one Jackson tourism board, not two

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The state is forcing Jackson County’s hand when it comes to forming a single entity to oversee how tourism tax dollars are spent.

Jackson County has two tourism agencies — one representing the Cashiers area and one for Jackson County as a whole — that oversee room tax money collected by the lodging industry. Whether to merge the two into a single countywide entity has been a source of controversy since last year, prompting the formation of a task force to study the issue.

That may be for naught, however, since the county recently learned its current structure is out of compliance with state law.

It seems the county inadvertently triggered the mandate when it sought an increase in its room tax rate from 3 to 6 percent last year. Doing so required a special bill in the General Assembly. That same bill also required Jackson County to form a single tourism development authority.

While the county has held off on enacting the room tax hike, the county nonetheless was obliged to follow through on changing the structure of its tourism boards, according to County Attorney Jay Coward.

Cashiers tourism leaders have resisted attempts to do away with their separate tourism arm, which gets 75 percent of the room tax generated in the Cashiers area to spend on its own marketing. 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 supported a merger believe it would be more effective, eliminating the duplication and competition that currently exists between the two entities and putting the money to wiser use under a single tourism strategy.

It would seem the argument is now moot.

County Commissioner Mark Jones, who represents the Cashiers area and voted against the original proposal, said he does not believe the community will resist a unified Tourism Development Authority after all.

“But it’s going to depend on what the state recommends and what the makeup would be,” Jones said. “(There must be) a fair representation from all over the county.”

A county-appointed advisory group made up primarily of lodging owners has been meeting every two weeks to discuss this very issue. Jones said they are within two meetings or so of returning to commissioners with recommendations about the formation of a new group.

“There’s no template,” Jones said about statewide tourism efforts. “We thought we’d find something out there to serve as a good template to guide us, but it’s not out there.”

Instead, Jones said, each county in North Carolina more or less creates how to best manage tourism-generated tax dollars.

That is precisely why the legislation triggered the formation of a new unified tourism board: the state has sought uniformity in how tourism boards operate, a requirement that is imposed whenever counties come to the state seeking a tax increase.

“I hope you don’t mind some friendly constructive criticism of the bill,” Coward wrote Trina Griffin this week, a staff attorney for the N.C. General Assembly. “I understand that the plan is to legislate on a case-by-case basis a consistent statewide system of tourism promotion. The obvious suggestion for a change to save other counties and towns from being confused by future bills would be to pass one statewide law.”

Coward, as of late Tuesday, had not received a reply from the state.

David Huskins, who heads a consulting group that is helping Jackson County develop an economic development plan and who’s worked with them on this issue, said there’s no question Jackson County must put a single tourism development authority in place.

Huskins said Asheville and Buncombe County were the first in the state to seek occupancy tax legislation from the state. By the mid 1980s, the trend of enacting a room tax had pushed into the western end of North Carolina. But oversight in some cases was loose because of the varying structures of different tourism boards overseeing the money that was raised.

“Over the years, some of the local governments were diverting funds outside of tourism – the tax was originally conceived for tourism promotion and marketing. But, a lot of local governments were saying if they needed a new ambulance, well tourists get hurt, too, and we have to provide services for them,” Huskins said.

That interpretation diluted the intent of the room tax — namely to provide a stream of revenue to further tourism — and created such an outcry from the tourism industry, the General Assembly by the mid 1990s moved to set up uniform guidelines.

“If you want an increase, you come under the new guidelines,” Huskins said flatly.

Commissioners did not decide on when exactly to form their new tourism development authority. Chairman Jack Debnam indicated a required public hearing could be held as soon as the April 16 meeting. The advisory committee meets this Thursday. Coward is expected to detail more of his findings regarding the state legislation.

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