A group tasked with helping Jackson County leaders decide whether to merge two separate tourism entities or possibly hike the room tax is dominated by people who work in the lodging industry.
Four out of the six members currently appointed to study the controversial issues are from within the lodging industry.
“We’ll be asking them for their opinions,” County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam responded when questioned on what, exactly, commissioners hope to gain from forming the subcommittee.
Merrily Teasley, owner of the Balsam Mountain Inn and one of the subcommittee members, noted that the group hasn’t met yet and so she wasn’t prepared to discuss specific issues. The lodging owner did emphasize, however, that she believes “tourism dollars are very important to Jackson County” in general.
The 3 percent room tax raised $440,000 in Jackson County in 2010. That money underwrites county tourism promotions. Tourism marketing efforts funded by the room tax are intended to bolster the entire tourism sector of the county, not just increase lodging.
John Bubacz, owner of Signature Brew Coffee Co. in Sylva and a member of the town’s Downtown Sylva Association, said there’s no doubt that most tourism dollars enter the county via hotels and motels. Still, excluding other business interests from such an important-to-everyone economic topic isn’t a good idea, he said.
“The opportunity for other voices” should have been entertained when forming a tourism subcommittee group, Bubacz said.
“I just think other industries should have the chance to be represented,” he said.
A tangled web of like interests
Two of the six committee members both work at the High Hampton Inn in Cashiers. One is Commissioner Mark Jones, and the other is his boss at the inn, Clifford Meads. Jones defended the makeup and membership of the tourism subcommittee, saying one “might just be surprised” by the objectivity of the lodging industry to, for instance, recommend if needed a higher room tax than is now levied.
The room tax is paid by tourists, not by the lodging entities themselves, but lodging entities have come out against an increase fearing it would deter tourists from staying in Jackson.
Asked about the criteria for picking committee members, Jones cited geographic location (an attempt to have all parts of the county represented) and marketing and promotion skills and experience.
Jones, in addition to working in the lodging industry, is chairman of Cashiers Travel and Tourism Association. As a result, Jones has found himself wearing two hats as the tourism debate has played out.
At county commissioner meetings, Jones would literally get up and leave his commissioners’ seat to address his colleagues at a central podium wearing his other hat as Cashiers’ tourism leader. Specifically, Jones has defended Cashiers amid discussions of whether a single tourism entity would serve the county better than two separate ones.
Not surprisingly, the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Association has vigorously resisted the idea of merging with the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Association. Cashiers’ tourism agency traditionally has isolated itself from larger tourism efforts in the county. That could change with the recent retirement of longtime director Sue Bumgarner, who drew criticism for not sharing marketing strategy or advertising campaigns.
Cashiers representatives sit on the board of the Jackson Travel and Tourism Association. No one from greater Jackson County, however, sits on the Cashiers board.
One county, one tourism board?
Debnam and County Manager Chuck Wooten have advocated for a single tourism entity, with both men saying that would allow for the development of a countywide strategic advertising plan and eliminate duplication of certain overhead.
Wooten said late last week that he plans on recommending the subcommittee designation take place with a little more formality and discussion than was the case during commissioners’ Feb. 6 meeting. Jones simply announced the people he had selected and did not identify them or their affiliations until queried by the news media following the meeting.
Wooten said he would suggest the matter be listed as an agenda item for the upcoming Feb. 20 commission board meeting.
Who’s been appointed?
A taskforce appointed by Jackson County commissioners are expected to examine whether county tourism efforts should be merged and possible look at a room-tax increase.
This new tourism subcommittee is made up of commissioners Jack Debnam and Mark Jones, plus Merrily Teasley, Balsam Mountain Inn; Clifford Meads, general manager of High Hampton Inn; Vic Patel, Best Western River Escape Inn And Suites; and Robert Jumper, tourism manager for Cherokee Travel and Promotion and chair of the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority. One more, as yet publicly unnamed member, will be asked to join, too, county officials said.