News roundup: $5M in tourism relief passes GA, Pack Library launches senior outreach

Weaverville downtown
ON THEIR OWN: Town leaders in Weaverville declared May 1 that they would no longer abide by Buncombe County's local COVID-19 emergency order. Photo by Cindy Kunst

$5M in Buncombe tourism relief passes General Assembly

COVID-19 has hit all parts of Buncombe County’s economy hard, but perhaps none harder than its tourism industry. From March 21 through April 18, according to data presented by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority on April 29, hotel occupancy averaged just over 16% — down from more than 93% for the same period a year ago.

New rules proposed by Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, and signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper on May 4 aim to give the tourism industry a boost once coronavirus-related restrictions on travel are lifted. The legislative change allows the BCTDA to use $5 million from its Tourism Product Development Fund — which previously had to be allocated to nonprofit entities or local government and spent on capital projects — for grants of up to $50,000 in support of tourism businesses other than lodging.

Edwards had originally filed a separate bill, SB 705, to allow the new use of funds, but after its progress stalled in a Senate committee, he was able to include the rules in the larger SB 704, the COVID-19 Recovery Act. “After initially being told ‘no’ by key decision-makers in the Senate, Sen. Edwards continued to work with legislators in both chambers and on each side of the aisle to get his bill’s language inserted into the S704 conference report,” the senator’s office wrote in a press release announcing the move.

According to the bill, the money would be managed by “an agency experienced in emergency  management funding for grants to assist small businesses” and not the TDA itself. However, the authority would have the final say over whether applicants would “significantly increase patronage of lodging facilities in Buncombe County,” a requirement for receiving funds.

The bill does not mandate that grant awardees offer their employees a living wage, and salary information is not included in the data on retained jobs that the TDA would be required to report to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. According to a 2019 study commissioned by the authority, the area’s average salary for a tourism job was $29,485, less than the $32,240 established as a living wage by Just Economics for workers without employer-provided health insurance.

TDA proposes $15.5M operating budget for FY2020-21

As one part of the BCTDA’s occupancy tax revenues became available for local businesses, a significantly larger portion is slated to bring tourists back to the region. At the authority’s April 29 meeting, board members heard Stephanie Brown, president and CEO of the Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, propose a $15.5 million operating budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

The spending plan marks a nearly 25% reduction from the roughly $20.6 million budget approved for the current fiscal year. However, expenditures are projected to exceed revenues for the coming year by over $4.3 million; that excess will be paid from the TDA’s reserved fund balance.

Expenses include over $8.3 million for media campaigns (down 34% from last year’s budget), more than $1.9 million for salaries (down 16%) and over $825,000 for group sales (down 19%). One new cost is $70,000 to hire an executive search firm to find Brown’s replacement; last month, she announced her departure from Explore Asheville effective at the end of June. (The BCTDA unanimously named Chris Cavanaugh, founder of the Asheville-based Magellan Strategy Group and former BCTDA board chair, to serve as Explore Asheville’s interim leader.)

In response to public comments suggesting that some of the TDA’s marketing budget be repurposed for direct community support, Sabrina Rockoff, the authority’s attorney, claimed that such a move was prohibited by the state constitution. Previously collected tax revenues, she explained, are required to be spent on the purposes for which they were originally collected.

Pack Library launches senior outreach initiative

Pack Memorial Library senior resource box
CARE PACKAGE: Resource boxes assembled by the Pack Memorial Library for area seniors include fiction and nonfiction books, puzzles and letters. Photo by Erin Parcels

Although downtown’s Pack Memorial Library sits less than a tenth of a mile from the Battery Park and Vanderbilt Place senior apartment complexes, the library’s closure due to COVID-19 has made it feel much farther away for many residents. A new program developed by library staff aims to close the gap that restrictions to curb coronavirus have created.

Starting this week, says library program coordinator Erin Parcels, residents of the senior apartments and the Charles George VA Medical Center are receiving resource boxes every Tuesday containing books donated by Bagatelle Books and the Friends of the Library. She says the library is coordinating with the VA and the Council on Aging of Buncombe County to determine additional drop-off locations for the future.

Puzzles and handouts on the library’s electronic resources are being included in the boxes as well. Soon, Parcels hopes, they’ll also hold letters and postcards written by community members.

“The main sentiments everyone is feeling are isolation and loneliness. When I proposed we get a letter and postcard campaign going, it was enthusiastically welcome,” Parcels says. “I know letters would mean the world to so many of our patrons who can’t come into the library.”

Letters for the program can be addressed to Letters to New Friends, Pack Memorial Library, 67 Haywood St., Asheville, NC 28801. Submitters can also include a return address if they’d like to become a pen pal.

Weaverville withdraws from Buncombe COVID-19 order

The town of Weaverville is tired of waiting. Although Buncombe County remains under a local executive order stricter than the statewide mandate enacted by Gov. Roy Cooper, Weaverville’s leaders announced that as of May 1, they would no longer be adhering to all of the county’s rules.

“Now that the governor has put in place a comprehensive set of restrictions aimed at protecting North Carolina’s citizens, the town has weighed whether the more restrictive provisions of the county’s orders are needed in Weaverville,” read a town press release announcing the change. “We have concluded that Weaverville does not present unique circumstances that require restrictions above and beyond what Gov. Cooper adopted statewide based on the public health guidance that he is receiving.”

As outlined in a statement released May 2, the change means town authorities will allow any business that can maintain social distancing — not just those explicitly outlined as essential under Buncombe’s executive order — to reopen. Nonessential visitors from outside the state will also not be required to self-quarantine for 14 days on their arrival to Weaverville. However, on May 4, town officials clarified that hotels and short-term rentals would still be prohibited from accepting leisure travelers.

Mission Health, AdventHealth Hendersonville resume procedures

On May 4 and 5, Mission Health and AdventHealth Hendersonville took initial steps in the direction of more normal health care operations, resuming some services that had been delayed during COVID-19-related restrictions.

“These procedures have been classified within tiers of urgency and acuity, allowing us to prioritize services as we take a measured approach to this transition,” said Dr. William R. Hathaway, chief medical officer for Mission Health. “Our patients will see continued — and in some cases enhanced — screening, testing, masking and patient flow procedures, as well as infection prevention protocols in facilities.”

Mission patients with scheduled procedures will receive instructions prior to arrival and will be allowed to have one adult with them in the waiting area. Escorts may wait outside the facility and receive phone calls with updates.

AdventHealth Hendersonville also announced several measures to guard against infection, including:

  • Continued mask wearing by staff and patients.
  • Continued visitor restrictions.
  • Rapid COVID-19 testing for patients and health care workers.
  • Temperature screening at entrances to AdventHealth facilities.
  • Registration and waiting in patient vehicles for certain appointments.
  • Continued social distancing measures in waiting rooms, reception areas and elevators.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is a contributing editor of Mountain Xpress, reviewing coverage of Western North Carolina's governments and environment. He was formerly the paper's news editor; his work has also appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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