Furor prompts re-think over TDA funding in Haywood

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority board backed down from plans to cut grant funding for long-celebrated events such as Folkmoot USA, Downtown Waynesville street dances and Canton’s Labor Day Festival.

The tourism board had been contemplating new grant guidelines for events — cutting off grant funding after four years and capping one-day events to a maximum grant of $1,500. But they reversed course following backlash from event organizers over the proposed changes.

Not all tourism board members wanted the changes in the first place. Mark Clasby, executive director of the county’s Economic Development Commission and a board member, was among those on the tourism board who raised concerns about the repercussions of cutting funding for existing festivals.

The intent was to free up grant money to boost new, up-and-coming festivals. The watered-down guidelines encourage rather than mandate that “new, qualified events” are given priority status.

Established festivals already have strong sponsorships and attendance, and after receiving TDA money for four years, new events should be better able to support themselves, said Marion Hamel, a member of the board from Maggie Valley.

“We didn’t feel like it would be that big of a hardship,” said Hamel, who helped draft the proposed guidelines.

Hamel said four years of grant funding should be adequate.

“It is going to take three years for any new event to get off the ground,” Hamel said.

But, just because an event is longstanding does not mean it’s profitable or no longer needs grant support. The town of Canton doles out $20,000 for music, portable toilets, stages, tents, clean-up crews and law enforcement at its annual Labor Day Festival.

“Ours is a little over a 100 years now. We are going to get it right,” joked Al Matthews, Canton town manager and a board member.

Many of these events depend on TDA funding to help broaden their promotional efforts beyond Western North Carolina. Organizers said they would not be able to continue attracting larger crowds to the popular annual events without the funding, and the loss could force some perennial favorites to shut down.

“You don’t want to penalize somebody who is successful,” said Kay Miller, executive director of the Haywood County Arts Council, who attended the meeting. Miller said International Festival Day would never be able to advertise in publications, such as Southern Living, if it did not receive TDA money.

Most events are run by nonprofits, which are only allowed to keep a certain amount of money in the bank. Any monies left over go back into the nonprofit or are used to promote the event the following year.

“This would be very devastating to some of us,” said Deborah Reed, a member of the tourism board. Reed is also leader within the Canton merchant’s association FOCUS, a nonprofit that puts on the annual Mater Fest.

Board members agreed that new events should be given a chance but disagreed over whether older events should be excluded from the TDA’s funding pool.

“You don’t want to create funding dependent organizations,” agreed Matthews, who also suggested cutting out the proposed guidelines how much money older events can receive.

About $215,000 of the tourism agency’s funds — a quarter of what is collected from the county’s 4 percent tax on overnight lodging — are earmarked this year for special tourism initiatives. The TDA collects more than $850,000 in revenue each year from the county’s 4-percent lodging tax.

Maggie Valley, Canton, Waynesville, Lake Junaluska and Clyde each keep a portion of the tax revenue they generate. The five areas also have their own committee, which divvies up their share of the tourism agency’s funds.

Ken Stahl, the tourism board’s finance chair, said the committees need to try to achieve a balance between giving new events an opportunity to flourish and supporting the events the county is already known for.

“Our prime directive is to get an increase in tourism,” Stahl said.

Each year, the committees sift through applications and make recommendations to the tourism authority, which has final approval in all funding decisions.

The committees have “a very difficult time sometimes,” Hamel said.

“The best things to do would be to clarify (the guidelines),” Hamel said. “This is what we are suggesting.”

Some board members and event coordinators did not know about the proposed changes until they received a call for comment from The Smoky Mountain News for an article prior to the tourism meeting last week.

“It caught me a little off guard,” said Matthews, who noted that he had not seen the changes to the guidelines until he received the board’s meeting agenda.

Although a tamer version of the proposed guidelines was passed, the board could decide to pass stricter standards in the future.

“This subject comes up every two or three years for discussion,” said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Tourism Development Authority.

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