Artists from around the Southeast will set up their easels and ready their colors in an outdoor painting spree around Cashiers for the weeklong Arts on the Green, a plein air art festival held from July 15-21.
Don’t expect business as usual at the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce as a new director takes over for the first time in more than 20 years.
The business organization became embroiled in controversy last year amid questions about whether the agency was effectively promoting the region and spending tourism tax dollars wisely. Shortly thereafter, the chamber’s longtime director, Sue Bumgarner, announced her retirement.
On the heels of a vote that now allows alcoholic beverages to be sold countywide, Jackson County is considering opening two new ABC stores: one in Cashiers and the other along the highway leading to Cherokee in the Qualla community.
County commissioners indicated at a meeting this week they’d likely form a committee to determine whether opening either of the ABC stores was financially feasible.
A task force studying whether Jackson County should revamp its approach to luring tourists began laying the groundwork last week to merge its two separate tourism agencies into one.
In coming months, the task force will wrestle with the best make-up and structure for a single countywide tourism development authority, which will control roughly $440,000 generated by a 3-percent tax on overnight lodging.
Jackson County currently has one tourism agency representing the Cashiers area and one tourism agency representing Jackson County as a whole. Supporters of that concept have argued Cashiers needs its own tourism agency — with control of its own dollars — to cater to its own unique tourism needs. Opponents have argued that having two groups is a waste of money and resources and is less effective.
Clifford Meads, manager of High Hampton Inn in Cashiers, suggested a makeup for the new entity that guarantees Cashiers a nearly equal number of seats on the board.
Meads tendered a proposal calling for an 11-member board, with five seats designated for tourism representatives from the Cashiers area. Specifically, he suggested six representatives from lodging businesses, three of which would hail from Cashiers; one tourism-related business representative from Cashiers and one from Sylva; one chamber of commerce representative from Cashiers and one from Sylva; plus a county commissioner designee. A chair would be selected from within the group.
The proposal received nods of general agreement from other task force members, though the exact makeup is clearly a long way from being decided.
Robert Jumper, manager of Travel and Tourism for Cherokee and chairman of the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority, emphasized that he believes it critically important that the chamber directors be on the future tourism development authority board, too. They currently serve on the Cashiers and Jackson County boards that are in existence.
“From my perspective, I saw a huge value in having the executive directors there to give us the staff perspective,” Jumper said. “In some capacity there needs to be that input.”
For now, Jackson County most likely will temporarily merge its two tourism agencies into one. There is a sense of urgency following revelations that Jackson County is out of compliance with a state law mandating that a single entity oversee room tax expenditures. Moving forward with a temporary merger for now will give county leaders until next year to hammer out the specific makeup of a permanent, future tourism development authority for the county, County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said.
While a task force comprised primarily of lodging owners has been appointed to make recommendations, county commissioners ultimately have the final say. A vote on combining the two tourism boards into an interim tourism development authority is likely to take place at the county commissioners’ meeting Monday.
Attorney Jay Coward said, like Debnam, he believed that the county needed to come into compliance with state law quickly and continue hammering out actual details about the new board.
“I think what y’all are doing is exactly what you ought to be doing,” he assured task force members in their discussions at last week’s meeting.
Having to balance competing geographic interests isn’t unique to Jackson County. Haywood County, for example, had an ongoing tug of war over tourism dollars between Waynesville and Maggie Valley for years. To resolve these differences, the tourism board there was expanded from nine to 12 members about four years ago.
The board is representative of various geographic areas in the county.
Additionally, a portion of tourism tax dollars are earmarked to individual communities to spend as they see fit, yet another effort aimed at ending the tug of war and turf battles over the room tax money. Of the county’s 4 percent room tax, 1 percent is earmarked for special tourism initiatives in the different geographic areas of the county.
The special pot of money is divvied up among the county’s five “zip code” communities based on where it was collected, said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority. The TDA collects and administers the money, but each community has a subcommittee that accepts and review applications for dollars. The subcommittees make recommendations to the full TDA, which pretty much rubberstamps them, Collins said
“It seems to be working well,” she said, adding that the communities have “flexibility” to spend on things they feel are important and can pinpoint “what’s most needed as is related to tourism. It’s kind of like a grant program,” Collins said in explanation.
Meads said he believes the mandate for a single tourism development authority could be a good thing for Jackson County because “it forces us to come to agreement” on various tourism-related issues.
“We can craft something for ourselves” and not be “pigeon-holed” with another county’s format, Meads added.
As in Haywood County, composition of the new board in Jackson County will be key.
Jackson County for months has been struggling to sort out how best to spend its room tax dollars, and how to best balance competing geographic interests in the county.
Jackson County currently has one tourism agency representing the Cashiers area and one tourism agency representing Jackson County as a whole. The members oversee the annual 3 percent room tax money collected from the lodging industry. The amount isn’t small potatoes: each year about $440,000 is collected, which is pumped back in to tourism promotion.
Seventy-five percent of the room tax generated in the Cashiers area currently goes back to that community’s tourism group to spend on its own marketing. Supporters of that concept have argued Cashiers needs its own tourism agency — with control of its own dollars — to cater to its own unique tourism needs. Opponents have argued that having two groups is a waste of money and resources.
Whether to merge the county’s two tourism groups into a single countywide entity has been a source of ongoing controversy since last year. The debate essentially ended earlier this month, however, when the county discovered that its current structure doesn’t comply with state law.
The county, by seeking an increase in its room tax rate from 3 to 6 percent last year from the General Assembly, triggered the mandate to form a single tourism development authority. 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 as Jackson did.
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.
Margaret Fry Carton of the Cashiers area has been elected president of the Friends of Panthertown, a nonprofit that protects, preserves and promotes Panthertown Valley, a national forest enclave of unusual beauty and stunning natural features near Cashiers.
"We will continue our work to ensure that Panthertown remains a vibrant and protected natural resource for our community, and for the unique flora and fauna the flourishes here," Carton said. "This organization represents a unique partnership between conservation minded individuals and the Forest Service."
Carton, who lives in the Cashiers, retired in 2005 from Coca-Cola Enterprises as the vice president, chief information officer. Before that, she was the vice president of investor relations and planning and managed several financial functions, including investor and share-owner relations, employee communications, financial media relations, and strategic financial planning and analysis. Her husband is an associate professor and department head for entrepreneurship, sales and marketing, and hospitality and tourism at Western Carolina University.
Panthertown is located in the Nantahala National Forest between the mountain communities of Cashiers in Jackson County and Lake Toxaway in Transylvania County. Carton is also the chairman of the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School Board of Trustees in northeast Georgia. In addition, she serves on the board of the Atlanta Ballet and is a member of the Western Carolina University Computer Information Systems Advisory Board.
Carton is the second president of Friends of Panthertown, succeeding David M. Bates, the organization's first president and co-founder, who passed away last year.
The battle of the Joneses is about to commence in Jackson County.
County Commissioner Mark Jones will appear on the ballot alongside challenger Marty Jones in November. Mark Jones is a Democrat, Marty Jones a Republican.
The Joneses will fight for the right to represent the Cashiers area.
Marty Jones and Mark Jones were on the opposite side of a heated countywide debate five years ago over mountain development regulations. Commissioner Mark Jones was part of the board that ushered in progressive regulations aimed at protecting the beauty and quality of life in the mountains.
Marty Jones, a real estate broker/owner, was a vocal opponent of the regulations, claiming they were too restrictive and deterimental to the economy.
He formed the Property Owners of Jackson County, a private-property rights advocacy group.
“Everything we predicted came true,” Marty Jones said Tuesday shortly after filing as a candidate. “I am running because I want Jackson County to get back to work.”
He said he’d help ensure that by working with the sector most flattened, such as builders and real estate agents plus the county planning department.
Democrat incumbent Mark Jones first ran and won election in 2006 and again in 2008, defeating Republican challengers each time.
But that was then and this is now. During the last election, following 16 years of Democratic domination, Republicans Doug Cody and Charles Elders successfully won election. Chairman Jack Debnam, an unaffiliated candidate who received GOP backing and advertising support, also won against a Democrat incumbent.
A phone message left for Mark Jones went unreturned by press time.
The Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority briefed Jackson County commissioners on some of their marketing campaigns from the year, responding to calls that the agency was too insular.
Mark Jones, a member of the Cashiers tourism board who is also a Jackson County commissioner, gave a presentation on the agency’s advertising for the year, including samples of ads that have been placed in various magazines and travel articles written about Cashiers.
Jones said the Cashiers tourism board plans to get new software that will allow it to share the names and contact information for prospective tourists with lodging owners and other tourism businesses. When prospective tourists call, email or respond to magazine ads requesting information on visiting Cashiers, the Cashiers tourism agency sends them brochures. A new system will allow the database of names to be made available to those in the tourism industry who may want to follow up with brochures and literature of their own, Jones said.
Jones said the Cashiers tourism agency is more than happy to provide a regular report to the county.
“We truly want transparency,” Jones said.
Sue Bumgarner, the director of the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Association, had not responded to earlier requests by the county to provide a progress report on its tourist promotions. Tourism in Jackson County has taken a hit in the recession, spurring interest at the county level on how to improve marketing.
All the invoices for the Cashiers tourism agency go through the county finance office, and Bumgarner has said she thought those invoices served as adequate reporting to the county on the agency’s activities.
A failure by the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce and the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority to provide county leaders reports on how room-tax dollars are spent led this week to promises of prompt corrective action.
Mark Jones, who serves in a dual role as county commissioner and chairman of the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority, said he had not been aware that there had been multiple and ongoing attempts to understand tourism marketing efforts. These are carried out with county funds under the direction of Cashiers Chamber of Commerce Director Sue Bumgarner. Bumgarner also has failed to provide the county with copies of minutes from Cashiers tourism board meetings as requested.
Jones’ concession came, however, after he indicated that he believed adequate information was already available to commissioners from the county’s finance office.
County Finance Officer Darlene Fox “prepares reports every month. Every dollar that goes in and every dollar that goes out,” Jones told the board.
While the bills for the Cashiers tourism agency are filed with the county finance department, it is often not clear from the invoices exactly what it is for, however, with only general references to an ad that ran in an unnamed magazine during an unspecified month or generic “marketing” services.
Chairman Jack Debnam made it evident that he didn’t consider Jones’ suggestion to simply rely on the finance office a satisfying one. Debnam indicated that he wants direct answers from the people with their hands down in the money pot.
“I’ve requested copy of minutes, since January, and information from (Bumgarner) and received nothing,” Debnam said.
Debnam said that the Jackson County Tourism and Travel Authority, by contrast, has provided him information and minutes of board meetings.
“I apologize,” Jones said. “I was not aware of the repetitive requests, but I hear loud and clear now.”
County Attorney Jay Coward told board members they have a lawful right to the information being sought. He did not detail possible remedies if the Cashiers TTA information and minutes continue being withheld from county leaders.
Bumbargner also was unable to provide The Smoky Mountain News with minutes from her tourism board meetings or an accounting of how marketing money was spent, including magazines ads had published in. Bumgarner was not at the commission work session, held this week to discuss whether to hike the county room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent.
Jones urged a slowdown on the consideration of a room tax hike from 3 to 6 percent. The tax on overnight lodging generated $440,000 last year, which is pumped back into tourism marketing efforts carried out by two separate tourism promotion agencies in the county — the Cashiers and Jackson County Travel and Tourism authorities.
Commissioner Doug Cody defended the county’s attempt to demand accountability for how tourism tax money is being spent.
“I want to know why we are getting our butts kicked, and where our money is going, and is it being used wisely, and I want to find out now. And putting the tax increase aside, there’s a reason we are lagging behind. And, I don’t want to wait a year,” Cody said.
Regional tourism numbers show Jackson County behind other Western North Carolina counties, both in revenue made and jobs created.
The commissioners did not weigh in during the workshop on their individual stances on a room tax increase. Previously, four voted in favor of the increase, but that was before public backlash. Commissioners will take up the issue in early January for a vote, with intentions of studying the issue between now and then.
County Manager Chuck Wooten estimated the county’s two TTAs have spent as much as $10 million combined in tourism tax money over the past 25 years. Cashiers receives 75 percent of the lodging tax generated in the Cashiers area — which amounted to $177,000 last year. The remaining $263,000 went to the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority.
Cashiers’ efforts to attract tourists have been isolated from the county’s overall tourism efforts, spearheaded by the separate Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority and the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.
Cashiers does not share marketing strategy or advertising campaigns with the Jackson County TTA.
• Jackson County commissioners in early October voted 4-1 to hike the county’s room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent, with Mark Jones voting against the increase.
• The board later rescinded that vote because, as advised by County Attorney Jay Coward, they failed to hold a legally required public hearing.
• A side issue erupted over whether the two separate tourism marketing arms — one for Cashiers and one for the county as a whole — should be merged.
• The obligatory public hearing was held last week, attracting a swarm of unhappy lodging owners from the southern portion of the county who aired their vast displeasure with the proposed increase.
• Commissioners held a work session this week to discuss the possible hike. Discussion among commissioners deteriorated into accusations of underhanded dealing and political power plays. Before the argument broke out, County Manager Chuck Wooten defended the sequence of events leading up to the room-tax vote by presenting commissioners and members of the news media with an inch-tall stack of paperwork. These included emails and other documentation accumulated before and after the October room tax hike.
County Manager Chuck Wooten provided the following suggestions for consideration by commissioners, carefully emphasizing these were an attempt to help, not control, the debate:
• Take no action: Occupancy tax remains at 3 percent and the county’s two travel and tourism boards continue as currently configured.
• Make minor structural changes: Keep two tourism agencies, but provide more flexibility in how the room tax is spent, allowing a portion to go toward “tourism-related expenditures,” including capital projects, rather than solely marketing and promotions.
• Do a comprehensive performance evaluation of the current tourism agencies and analyze the effectiveness of these organizations, then make decisions based off of the results.
• Hike the tax from 3 percent to 6 percent and form a single Jackson County Tourism Development Authority.
Jackson County is nowhere close to cementing a deal with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad — one that would offer financial incentives in exchange for basing a steam engine tourist train in Dillsboro.
“It is far from a done deal,” said County Manager Chuck Wooten.
The county and the train have yet to agree on key factors.
The heart of the matter is a restored 1913 steam engine and passenger cars the railroad would like to put in service. But there’s a problem. The train is in Maine, and moving it here would cost $430,000, the railroad’s owner Al Harper estimates.
Harper wants the county to chip in half the cost of moving the train, as well as help secure an outside grant to build a turntable and a standing commitment to help with advertising costs.
Discussions have been informal and intermittent since last winter. The deal is primarily being brokered by a Dillsboro business owner and town board member, David Gates, who is acting as a de facto intermediary between Harper and county officials.
Gates recently drew up a draft contract and passed it around to the various parties. Harper lives out of state, but came to town for the train festival in Bryson City in late September. Gates took him a copy — and Harper promptly signed it.
The draft is not a version the county would endorse right now, however, and Wooten was flummoxed as to why Harper would have signed it prematurely.
There’s a key component missing, from the county’s perspective. Jackson County wants a written guarantee the steam engine would be based in Dillsboro for at least five years — not Bryson City, where the rest of its trains depart from.
“We want it to originate in Dillsboro, turn around in Bryson City and run back to Dillsboro,” Wooten said.
Shops would benefit more if people boarded and disembarked in Dillsboro, rather than merely rolling into town for a 90-minute layover before loading back up and heading out.
The trip from Bryson City to Dillsboro and back lasts four hours total, including the layover. Tickets start at $49 for adults and $29 for children age 2 to 12.
Dillsboro was once the main depot for the train, but the headquarters were moved to Bryson City in 2005. Then in 2008, the train yanked service to Dillsboro completely before partially restoring it the following year.
“When the train left, they lost a lot of traffic,” Wooten said of Dillsboro merchants.
County leaders are skittish that could happen again and want an assurance built into the contract. To pass muster with the county, the contract would have to require the train to keep the steam engine based in Dillsboro for five years. If it is moved elsewhere, the railroad would have to pay back a portion of the county’s grant, Wooten said.
Ideally, the train would promise to run a certain number of trips — such as two a day during summer and fall, and once a day during winter. But the county can’t expect the railroad to make such a commitment not knowing what the demand will be.
The draft contract circulated by Dillsboro stipulated that operations of the steam engine would be based in Dillsboro. But it also stated that “only the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad will have complete authority as it relates to all scheduling and operations of the train set originating out of Dillsboro.”
Such a disclaimer could make enforcement difficult if the railroad ever broke the promise.
Wooten also said if a deal was ever agreed on, the county would shy away from writing a check directly to the railroad. Instead, the county would want an invoice from the company involved in moving the steam engine and would pay it directly.
A must-have for the train to bring a steam engine to Dillsboro is a turntable, a piece of track that can be spun around to get the engine pointed back the right way when it reaches the end of the line.
The train apparently can’t afford the $200,000 to build one. The tiny town of Dillsboro can’t either. But the town will apply for a grant to cover the cost. A lot is riding on the outcome of that grant.
“No turntable, no steam engine,” Wooten said. “That would be a deal killer.”
The train currently runs on diesel engines. When the engine reaches the end of the line on excursions, it goes in reverse until it gets back to the depot in Bryson City.
Steam engines can’t go in reverse for long distances, however, making the turntable critical. The steam engine would run from Dillsboro to Bryson City, so another turntable would have to be installed there.
A turntable in Bryson City has been discussed for years. In 2005, the train got a $7.5 million low-interest loan from the Federal Railroad Administration, in part to construct turntables in Bryson City and Dillsboro. “How many years ago was that and where is the turntable?” asked Hanneke Ware, an inn owner in Jackson County who doesn’t think the county should give the railroad a grant. Wooten said the train apparently purchased the turntables but never installed them.
A portion of that loan was also for repairs to the track. But the majority was used to restructure existing debt that had a higher interest rate.
That existing debt and federal loan is one reason the railroad wants grants — not more loans — to move the steam engine and for the turntable. Wooten was told by the railroad that it lacked the collateral to take on additional debt right now.
The train has also asked for money for advertising from the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority — tapping into the pot of money raised from a tax on overnight lodging in the county. The train initially asked for $150,000 a year, but has since revised the request to an unspecified amount of advertising on the train’s behalf, specifically for marketing the steam engine service from Dillsboro.