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.