BCTDA approves $15.3 million for tourism marketing

Grove Arcade parking
FULLER HOUSE: As Asheville continues to boom as a national vacation destination, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority plans to up its spending on marketing to bring visitors to the region. Photo by Brooke Randle

As tourism and travel ramp back up from the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority plans to pump millions of dollars into advertising to ensure that Asheville remains a top regional destination.

In a 8-1 vote on June 30, the BCTDA board approved a $20.3 million operating budget for fiscal year 2021-22. The bulk of the budget — $15.3 million —  is designated for advertising and public relations efforts to increase tourism and overnight stays in Buncombe County. The money represents a 55% increase over the $9.7 million the agency spent on marketing during its previous budget cycle.

“It’s easy to say that $15 million is a lot of money,” said BCTDA board member and hotelier John McKibbon. But he argued that the expenditure was worthwhile, pointing to the roughly  $2 billion local economic impact of the tourism industry,

Board member Andrew Celwyn cast the sole vote against the budget. Of the 70 comments that the authority received on the matter, he said, nearly all expressed concern over the amount of money being spent to draw more tourists to the area and the negative impacts of tourism on the local community, including contributing to Asheville’s rising cost of living. 

Many commenters asked that the funds allocated for advertising instead be spent on city infrastructure, schools and reparations for Asheville’s Black residents. But state law prevents occupancy tax money from supporting most government infrastructure or operations, meaning that property owners mostly foot the bill for police and fire service, road and sidewalk repair and construction and the costs associated with cleaning up after large numbers of visitors.

The budget also includes $440,000 to administer the authority’s Tourism Product Development Fund, which provides grants to projects with the potential to boost tourism throughout the county, and $200,000 in earned revenue from paid advertising on BCTDA websites that is generally used to sponsor local events.

While the authority’s budget was approved with those allocations, spending levels may change if new state legislation alters the current split of occupancy tax revenue. Existing legislation requires the BCTDA to spend 75% of occupancy tax revenues on marketing, with the remaining 25% allocated toward “tourism-related capital expenditures.” 

The proposed change, which appears to have support from the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, Republican Sen. Chuck Edwards and the Asheville Buncombe Hotel Association, would shift those percentages to two-thirds and one-third, respectively.

If the revenue split is adjusted, said board member John Luckett, the authority will make budgetary amendments to reflect those changes, including shifting $2 million from its roughly $12 million in available cash reserves to fund the desired level of marketing. 

“I think this budget is another year where we’re letting down our community. For over 25 years, we’ve been the TDA in the state that invests the least amount in our local community, and it’s a very marginal change that we’re talking about potentially taking place if the legislation is changed to a two-thirds/one-third split,” said Celwyn. 

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12 thoughts on “BCTDA approves $15.3 million for tourism marketing

  1. NFB

    “It’s easy to say that $15 million is a lot of money,” said BCTDA board member and hotelier John McKibbon. But he argued that the expenditure was worthwhile, pointing to the roughly $2 billion local economic impact of the tourism industry”

    Anyone else remember when, in exchange for approval of his plans to turn the BB&T building into a hotel, he promised to work to get the law changed so that some of the room tax money that goes to marketing could go to help locals pay for services that tourists use while they are here? That was five and half years ago – more than HALF A DECADE. What has he done to make good on this promise?

    C’mon MX dust off your investigative reporting and look into this.

  2. Jon King

    This will really put Asheville on the map! I just hope that people who visit don’t decide that they’d like to live here.

    • NFB

      What do you think the ad campaign is REALLY all about?

      It is no coincidence that the annual Parade of Homes in Asheville takes place during the peak fall color season which is one of the biggest tourist draws to town, and it is no fluke that the Chamber of Commerce’s visitor center has a section promoting real estate available for sale.

      • luther blissett

        I honestly think it gives the TDA too much credit to assume some ulterior motive. It is given a giant pile of money and told to spend it and it spends it. Nobody will get fired if it’s spent badly. Nobody will have to face voters. If numbers go up, the senior staff will take credit and give themselves large bonuses. If numbers go down, well, stuff happened.

        If board members were drawing from their own companies’ budgets they’d care about how it was spent and have genuine metrics for the marginal value of each additional marketing dollar. They would look at the spreadsheets and graphs and say “hey, we spent basically nothing on marketing last year because of the pandemic and now that things are heading back to normal it looks like we were spending way more than we needed.”

        As Andrew Celwyn said, any change in the revenue split will have a marginal effect, and I guess most of the board would take that and hope it placates locals while knowing it still keeps the TDA rolling in money. A better legislative compromise would be to set a hard cap on marketing dollars and divert the surplus back to the county. It’s a worse outcome than abolishing the TDA, but it would at least make the marketeers think harder about where the money’s going.

        • Tori Sharon

          Tourism is a big part of Asheville’s overall economy. I am a native of Asheville, and strongly remember when it was a small city. Now, tourism has boomed in the city, and is reaching out to the county. Asheville has to promote itself as the beautiful mountain town it is. However, stop the madness of protests and reparations!! This is only destructive to this special town. Most of the people who live within the city limits, are on city council, and run city government are not native to the area. If they were, they would not allow the street names to be changed, the historical monuments to be removed, and they would work hard to preserve the beauty of the architecture, the landscapes and the general atmosphere.

  3. Taxpayer

    Buncombe County really needs to take the only action they can: eliminate the occupancy tax now ASAP. This is beyond ridiculous.

    • luther blissett

      Except they can’t, at least not for the next year. State law says that any change in the occupancy tax rate will only kick in at the start of a fiscal year. The fiscal year started… today. Unless the state law is changed, the county will be shoveling piles of money to the TDA every month until the end of June 2022.

      The county commission put the occupancy tax on the agenda in June and then took it off to discuss “at a later date.” Politely, it punted. Less politely, it chickened out. I mean, it’d be funny if the county tried to do it mid-year and the TDA then sued the county for the money, because it’s not as if the TDA hasn’t alienated everybody already. Maybe our colonial governor Chuck Edwards can work something out.

  4. luther blissett

    It’s easy to say that $15 million is a lot of money. It’s also easy to say that $15 million would fund half of the Asheville Police Department.

    Thanks again, Daniel, for the wearisome task of covering WNC’s most arrogant and least accountable revenue-spending authority.

    A few points:
    * the meeting documents (including financial statements) are only distributed 90 minutes before the meeting and long after the deadline for public comment during the virtual meeting. Not very transparent.
    * the TDA spent about $540,000 on marketing in May, which is in keeping with previous months. That means a FY21 total to-date of $3.5 million, which is 31% of what was budgeted. It had $8 million left from its budget allocation with one month left.
    * The TDA got $1.9 million in occupancy tax revenues for May and spent less than half of it.
    * The operating fund balance has increased on average by $1.5 million every month since the start of the year. If it didn’t collect a single cent of occupancy tax revenue from now on, it would still have $21 million in the bank.
    * This means June’s financial statements will be the ones to watch. Will they show the TDA spewing money at paid media like last month’s FY21 projections suggested? The “spring” campaign was scheduled to start in June. The money’s already spent.
    * Lodging sales have been at or above 2019 levels since October, and April 2021’s sales were highest for any April and the fifth-highest for *any month* in the past five years.
    * The public written comments are… plentiful. They’re included in ‘Board Meeting Documents’ here:

    https://www.ashevillecvb.com/event/bctda-board-meeting-june-2021/

    So we’ll be back here in about a month looking at that June statement, even though what the numbers are telling us is that they could spend nothing on marketing for the next fiscal year and the lodging sales would still set records.

  5. bsummers

    It’s worth noting that in the 2017 City Council race, there were three BCTDA-backed candidates in the primary, and not one of them came in better than eighth in a six-candidate cutoff. I mention this because everyone seems to assume that with TDA money, they can ruin any sitting city or county official who crosses them. It’s just not borne out by the evidence.

  6. jonny D

    I am addressing a few different issues here which really are all connected.
    This is an outrage! I think no money should be spent on tourism. They all will find their way here without spending money. Use it for something worth while. How does this
    help the community? More money to big brother’s hotel chains or other corporate stores. I am sure the city council is reaping well. They sit up there and come up with a lot of
    pathetic ideas which cost lots of money, yet the small business owner and other hardworking people are left out in the cold. Reparations? I have an idea, why don’t you move out
    of your big houses, give them to the black community, and then you can live in Pisgah View Apartments. Maybe then you will be able to see what the reality of living here really
    is. If I were a black person I would be insulted by the paltry amounts they think is going to take care of the past. Who voted for these idiots? Come on, let’s get past the BS and
    start talking truth……..

  7. J Stone

    Yes, jonny D, You are right. “This is an outrage! I think no money should be spent on tourism. They all will find their way here without spending money. Use it for something worth while. How does this help the community? ” The impacts of tourism damage our town. And we spend millions to promote it? Absurd. Obscene. Immoral. We have enough tourism; no need for more. No need for more traffic, congestion, fast-paced living, Asheville character erosion

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