“An accurate statement is we are in good shape,” remarked Don Warn, fiscal agent for the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, during a Dec. 16 presentation to the BCTDA board. For October, at least, that may be an understatement.
According to the BCTDA’s most recent financial documents, the county logged $53 million in room sales for October, the latest month for which data is available. The figure represents a 6% increase over the $50 million in sales for the same month in 2019 — and an all-time monthly record.
“On the balance sheet, I think we’re in a good position,” Warn continued, regarding the occupancy tax revenue on those room sales managed by the BCTDA. “We have plenty of fund balance, plenty of cash sitting in the bank.”
In the authority’s operating fund, which by law must be spent on tourism promotion, those undesignated cash reserves totaled $11.7 million through Nov. 30. As noted by BCTDA board Chair Himanshu Karvir, part of that strength comes from unusually low expenses in 2020.
Due to COVID-19, Karvir pointed out, the BCTDA has paused paid advertising through channels other than social media and search engines. From July 1 through Nov. 30, its marketing spend has totaled about $1.36 million, less than half the money deployed over the same period last year.
Over $2.25 million in undesignated cash reserves has also built up in the authority’s Tourism Product Development Fund, which represents the 25% of occupancy tax revenues required by state law to be invested in community projects. New awards from that fund have been frozen since 2019, when the BCTDA embarked on a long-term planning process for use of the money. Initially scheduled to conclude in April, that process has been delayed indefinitely as the authority continues to navigate the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier this year, the BCTDA and N.C. General Assembly collaborated to pass emergency legislation authorizing $5 million from the TPDF to be allocated as grants to local tourism-dependent businesses. Board member Andrew Celwyn asked if a similar measure might be enacted when the state legislature goes back into session in January.
While Karvir, as well as board members John McKibbon and Kathleen Mosher, expressed openness to that idea, the chair added that passing the previous legislation had required “a Herculean effort.” He said hospitality industry leaders, not the BCTDA board, had led the push for the emergency measure and would likely need to do so again.
“I just hope that we don’t take a look back on this time and say, ‘Boy, we wish we could have done more,’ and have that $2 million sitting there until the spring or the summer,” Celwyn replied.