Tourism fee hike divides commissioners

By Vicki Hyatt | Feb 06, 2017

Dreams of a pool of money for a splash park in Waynesville, improvements at Camp Hope to draw tourists off the Blue Ridge Parkway or improving a waterfall in Maggie Valley may have to be put on hold.

County leaders hoped funds would come from a $2 increase for every $100 paid for overnight accommodations in Haywood. The fee hike must first be authorized by the N.C. General Assembly; however, the cracks in support that surfaced at Monday’s County Commission meeting could be costly.

Considering the difficulties encountered when the measure was last discussed, Haywood County Tourism Development Authority board members stressed the importance of having unanimous support from the county, municipal and business group leaders to have the best chance for the legislation to pass in Raleigh.

Even though there was vigorous discussion before the TDA passed the resolution, all on the board ended up supporting the measure to increase Haywood’s occupancy assessment to 6 percent, the maximum allowed under state law. The extra money would be earmarked specifically for “brick and mortar” projects that would draw visitors to the area.

At Monday’s board meeting, Commissioner Brandon Rogers, who initially voiced support for the measure, voted against it after he realized it was a tax increase.

Rogers, a Republican and the newly elected commissioner on the board, said he publicly supported the measure early on, but called that a “rookie mistake.”

“When we initially talked about this, I thought I could support it,” he said. “It looks like a good idea. But after a lot of soul-searching, I thought how I’d run my entire campaign stating I’d never raise taxes unless there was a definite need.”

Rogers said while the extra tax wouldn’t fall on Haywood taxpayers, they would be paid by taxpayers somewhere, which is a tax increase, and he couldn’t support it.

The money available to the tourism board has been steadily growing as it is, he said, and the extra items that would be built aren’t must-have items.

“If it is something we have to have have taxes for, I am willing to support it,” Rogers said. “On the flip side, I don’t think that’s the situation here.”

The resolution passed on a 4-1 vote.

Despite a win, TDA Executive Director Lynn Collins immediately sent an email to her board members informing them of the vote and asking if they still wanted her to continue meeting with municipal governments given the outcome of the the divided vote.

“In all our discussions, we talked about how we wanted the support to be unanimous,” Collins said. “The last time we had everyone’s support except for one, and he’s changed his mind.”

Collins later said she was directed to stay the course and continue presenting the resolution to municipal and business leaders across the county.

All agree the sticking point to advancing the measure is Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, who wouldn’t endorse the bill when it was last brought up in 2013, and indicated she hadn’t changed her mind when questioned by The Mountaineer during an inaugural celebration last month.

Some leaders, however, said Presnell indicated she would remain neutral if it was what county leaders wanted. Presnell failed to return both an email or telephone message asking for comment by press deadline.

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said earlier he would introduce the measure, and Rep. Mike Clampitt said he would consider the action if requested by county leaders.


What’s the benefit?

During the board meeting, both Commissioner Michael Sorrells, who serves on the TDA board, and Collins, set forth a case for the increase.

The extra funds would provide a specific revenue source for capital projects needed both in the municipalities and in the county. The law stipulates how the existing funds must be used, and only small amounts are available to build infrastructure or attractions for the enjoyment of visitors and locals alike, Collins said.

For instance, Canton only has $7,770 available under the current system to spend on a capital project, which could include improvements at Camp Hope, but under the revised legislation could have $25,000 available annually.

Clyde now has $975 to work with, but could have $6,250 for a special project, while Maggie Valley could go from $54,000 to $156,000 annually to help build a skating rink, develop a waterfall that is currently inaccessible or develop trails on conservancy property adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Waynesville’s recreation plan includes a splash park, which Collins said tourists ask about, and new funding of $100,000 would be available annually to defray costs such as the $10 million set forth in its recent recreation plan that includes revamped facilities and even an outdoor music/entertainment venue.

Sorrells said he considers the occupancy tax more of a user fee than a tax and in no way sees the charge as something that is enough to keep a person from visiting.

“As commissioners, we’re always trying to do things to better our county,” he said. “This is not a property tax increase at all. It is a user tax for people coming here to help us pay for additional things to increase visitation. It is not a burden to our taxpayers here in this county.”

Four years ago, the idea to seek extra funding actually came out of the county’s Economic Development Board, Sorrells said, as creating more things to do for both visitors and future residents would make the county more attractive.

Collins said the current focus of the TDA board is to increase visitor numbers between Sunday and Thursday, which is a slack time and to become a year-around destination. That is happening by targeting groups looking for places to hold conventions, she added.


Chances slim

Following the meeting, Sorrells said Rogers’ vote hurt the effort.

“Our chances were slim anyway, but I think it its a dead duck now,” Sorrells said. “It really jeopardizes the ability to move it forward.”

Sorrells said the county already lost ground by not getting the measure passed during its first try when a focus was to build ball fields on county property in the Jonathan Creek community, just off I-40. Since that time, he said, Macon County developed such a product that has been wildly successful, and there is no advantage to Haywood stepping in.

While a larger portion of the existing funds could be used for product development, Collins said there’s a trade off between having visitor attractions and the money to promote them.

“Sure, you could cut out marketing to get tourism product, but that would gut your program,” she said.

Maggie Valley Alderman Phillip Wight was the lone dissenter when the occupancy increase was last discussed, but has since had a change of heart. He said as long as the extra tax is a possibility under the state law, there will be fighting over it. He said he would either like to give Haywood the chance to assess the tax or remove the possibility altogether to stop the fighting.