Becky Anderson — a retiree who served as Asheville’s first director of economic development, among other prominent roles — says one of the benefits of having been around awhile is that it gives her a sense of how political history has shaped current events. Even back in 1983, when state Sen. Martin Nesbitt introduced the legislation that created the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, she recalls, there were fierce battles over how the TDA should spend the proceeds from the new hotel occupancy tax that would provide the agency’s funding.
“Marty said, ‘We’ll never get anywhere for tourism if we try to do everything,’” Anderson explains. “That was the precedent that established that the money was to go for marketing Buncombe County as a tourism destination.”
Those disagreements haven’t grown any less heated over time. And with tourism’s total annual economic impact in Buncombe County now pegged at more than $2.6 billion, there’s even more at stake today. Last summer, an increase in the occupancy tax from 4 to 6 percent sparked a fresh round of debates. While tourism officials insisted that a boom in new hotel construction required increased spending on advertising and marketing, citizens and elected officials alike cited the costs and other impacts of hosting growing numbers of visitors.
Asheville City Council member Gordon Smith has been one of the most outspoken critics of the TDA’s refusal to dedicate a portion of room tax revenues to offsetting the infrastructure and public safety costs associated with tourism. He’s also decried what he sees as the tourism industry’s negative social impacts, including low wages for hospitality workers and upward pressure on local housing prices.
What’s needed, Smith maintains, is a common language that acknowledges both the benefits and challenges tourism brings to the region. Accordingly, he’s asking the city, the county and the Convention and Visitors Bureau to jointly fund an independent, third-party study of how the Asheville area can ensure that its tourism economy is sustainable. The CVB, an arm of the Chamber of Commerce, is hired by the TDA to carry out its mission.
“We need to look at the triple bottom line of sustainability: Is our tourism industry economically successful, does it promote a healthy environment and does it serve the needs of our local residents?” Smith explains. “I want us to look at the tourism industry through each of those three lenses.”
A complex calculus
During his successful 2015 Council election campaign, Brian Haynes maintained that continuing to expand the tourism industry doesn’t make sense. He says he supports the idea of a study, as long as the cost is reasonable and the public is invited to weigh in. David Gantt, chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, also likes the idea, saying, “Tourism has always been Asheville/Buncombe’s key industry. [Gathering] more information on ways to sustain this extremely important business is a wise move.”
But Stephanie Brown, the CVB’s executive director, isn’t ready to hire a consultant just yet. “I think there’s so much more we can do just communicating all the information we already have,” she asserts.
Low-paying hotel jobs, notes Brown, are often cited by critics as contributing to local poverty. “When you peel back that onion,” she explains, “you find that 42,000 jobs in Buncombe County pay less than $12 an hour. Less than 5 percent of those jobs are located in hotels.” Furthermore, she continues, tourism creates jobs across the wage scale while offering opportunities for advancement. And indirectly, tourism also creates positions for accountants, human resource professionals, lawyers and construction workers.
Promotional activity funded by the occupancy tax and implemented by the CVB, Brown maintains, plays a major role in supporting the viability of locally owned small businesses. “If we weren’t doing that regional marketing and advertising to create a customer base for those businesses, they wouldn’t be able to create that themselves. Without that support, our small businesses would be more vulnerable to displacement by chain stores.”
Smith agrees with her there; so does Gantt, who calls the bureau “brilliant” at marketing this area to the larger world. “Our visitor numbers speak for themselves,” he observes.
Where’s the tipping point?
After Julie Mayfield’s election last year, she was named City Council’s nonvoting representative on the TDA’s volunteer board. “The question I’ve started asking,” says Mayfield, “is what is our carrying capacity for visitors, so that the city is still a great place for the people who live here. Every ecosystem has the ability to absorb some amount of a new thing and still remain intact: What is that point for Asheville, regarding visitors?”
If a sustainable tourism study could explore “when enough is enough, when the marketing stops expanding and moves to more of a maintenance level,” she continues, “it could help reduce the very real and legitimate anxiety people have.” Buncombe County Commissioner Joe Belcher, who also serves on the board in a nonvoting role, did not respond to a request for comment.
Brown, however, stresses that both the TDA and the CVB focus on leveraging the region’s natural and cultural assets rather than investing in large-scale, high-impact attractions. “From a brand perspective, our mission is to attract visitors that are a good fit for what we have here. We don’t want to create a visitor culture that isn’t in line with what we as a community value,” she explains.
Since 2001, Brown points out, the TDA’s Tourism Product Development Fund has awarded over $23 million in grants for amenities that serve visitors and residents alike. They include things like the John B. Lewis Soccer Complex, Pack Square Park and greenways. And in the four years she’s been with the CVB, says Brown, she’s improved the program’s transparency in terms of grant criteria.
That funding, says TDA board member John Luckett, enables the city to use the money it would have spent on those amenities to meet other capital needs. Luckett, who’s the general manager of the Grand Bohemian Hotel in Biltmore Village, also points out that hotels contribute to city and county revenues in a variety of ways: through property taxes, sales taxes their guests pay and taxes paid by hotel employees.
Dance to the music
One new CVB initiative, says Brown, is designed to enhance Asheville’s national reputation as a music destination. According to a March 30 media release, the campaign will promote “the music sector in all its layers, including musicians, instrument makers, studios, venues, music shops, attractions and events.” A new music website accessible through exploreasheville.com will connect visitors with the city’s musical assets and experiences via streaming video, venue guides, artist profiles, a live music calendar and a curated Asheville radio station.
Jessica Tomasin, the manager of downtown Asheville’s Echo Mountain recording studio, is partnering with the CVB to identify and license Asheville artists for the project through the Asheville Commercial Music Enterprise. The idea is to create what Tomasin says she looks for when she travels to a new city — a way to connect with the local music scene. And by linking visitors with venues and musicians, Tomasin hopes the website will “spread the wealth around,” directing more tourist dollars toward the creative types who help make Asheville an appealing destination.
Street musician Abby Roach, who was part of a CVB focus group, believes the project could benefit the music community. The bureau’s resources, she says, have been critical in getting the effort off the ground. “Asheville has such a unique thing going on, it’s quite an undertaking to sift through all that and categorize it,” notes Roach, adding, “Maybe somebody will hit it big.”
The CVB, she reports, “seems to be genuinely listening” to the busker community. But the No. 1 sustainability issue facing street performers, she maintains, is sidewalk space: “In Asheville, we don’t have a big enough downtown for what we’re trying to do right now. There’s not enough parking, green space, sidewalk space and places for cars.” Roach hopes the city and the CVB will get on the same page regarding sidewalks, saying the agency “has funds they could direct.”
Don’t forget the locals
Sidewalks also seem to be on Brown’s mind. Though she prefaces her remarks with the familiar caution that occupancy tax funds must, by law, be spent on projects with the potential to increase visitation, she says her organization has been increasingly focused on the concept of placemaking. “If we look at a place, what are the infrastructure needs of that place to attract more visitors?” she explains.
During the past two grant cycles, notes Brown, the TDA has successfully invested in placemaking in the River Arts District, and “We are very anxious to do that for downtown.” This, however, will mean following the city’s planning process, including providing opportunities for public input.
“We must approach these issues in the spirit of collaboration and partnership,” she says. “This is a big community with a lot of people and groups, so it’s challenging, but we are willing to have that conversation.”
On the other hand, warns Brown, “Occupancy tax money can’t solve every problem Asheville faces. There also have to be community solutions. If we work together, we can focus occupancy tax money to address community needs. To get there takes hard work, dialogue and a good planning process.”
For his part, Smith believes a conversation based on sustainability can help move the different parties beyond the polarized positions that have characterized the debate for decades. “I’m not trying to dictate the outcome of the study I’m proposing,” he emphasizes. “We need to figure out the true costs related to providing services to tourists like public safety, sanitation, roads and sidewalks. What’s the gap between the cost of tourism and what it returns to the city?”
Like Smith, Mayfield doesn’t want to lose sight of tourism’s impact on the city’s overall quality of life. “Asheville has always been and will always be a tourist town,” she says, “but we are also a great place to live, and we don’t want to ever sacrifice the latter in favor of the former.”