Approximately 25 people gathered outside Explore Asheville offices armed with coffee, pastries and signs early May 31 to advocate for using occupancy tax dollars to fund affordable housing projects for service industry workers.
Representatives from Buncombe Decides, Asheville Food and Beverage United and the Asheville Democratic Socialists of America presented a petition signed by 2,000 workers and supporters asking the board to consider using the Legacy Investment From Tourism fund to increase subsidized housing for tourism industry workers.
“The 2,000 signatures on this petition represent the people of the city getting organized to fight for better living conditions. Using this money for housing is what the people of Asheville want, and we’re going to keep fighting for it and organize to win changes in how Asheville treats working-class people and the most vulnerable among us. Using the LIFT fund to alleviate the housing crisis is an easy step in the right direction,” Rosemary Dodd, an Asheville bartender and member of AFBU told Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority board members at the May 31 meeting.
Jen Hampton, chair of Asheville Food and Beverage United, told the TDA board that small-business owners are telling her the burgeoning housing crisis is forcing workers to live too far from the city’s core to afford working in it.
“I can’t find people, and it’s not the adage that people just don’t want to work anymore; it’s that people just can’t afford to live here anymore,” she said restaurant owners tell her.
The BCTDA has begun the process of putting together a committee to govern the LIFT fund created by 2022 legislation for “tourism-related capital projects” and “benefit the community at large in Buncombe County.”
This new fund differs from the existing Tourism Project Development Fund, which is earmarked to fund “major tourism capital projects” and to“further economic development” in Buncombe. Past projects funded by the TPDF include upgrades to the Asheville Community Theatre, the John B. Lewis soccer complex at Azalea Park and the Asheville Municipal Golf Course.
The funds share one-third of the TDA’s occupancy tax revenue equally. The other two-thirds is slated for marketing and promoting Asheville as a tourist destination. Explore Asheville staff projected $6.3 million each in revenues for the LIFT and TPDF in fiscal year 2023-24, according to a staff presentation. That would mean $12.1 million is available for LIFT grants after the fund balance from current fiscal year revenues and administrative costs are considered.
Advocates argued that a representative for the workers in tourism industries should have a seat on the LIFT committee.
“Their perspectives will enrich your decision-making process…and increase public confidence in the equitable distribution of TDA funds. These would not be token appointments but a true recognition that service, creative and environmental workers are vital participants in making Asheville and Buncombe County a global destination,” said Nina Tovish during public comment.
BCTDA board Chair Kathleen Mosher announced the LIFT nominating committee at Wednesday’s meeting, which is scheduled to be filled by the end of August.
The nominating committee is:
- Brenda Durden, BCTDA vice chair
- Ken Stamps, co-founder of Navitat Canopy Adventures and TPDF vice chair
- Fielding Lowe, vice president of Park National Bank and TPDF member
Five members of the committee must be owners or operators of hotels, motels or bed-and-breakfasts, according to legislation, and the remainder of the nine-member committee should have a background in tourism, legal, financial, economic development, architecture or engineering.
LIFT committee applications are due July 7, and recommendations by the nominating committee will be made at the Aug. 30 BCTDA board meeting. The project application window opens in October, and applicants will be chosen in April 2024.
Hampton said authors of the legislation that created the LIFT fund, including Sen. Julie Mayfield and former state Sen. Chuck Edwards, have expressed support for proceeds to be used for direct community needs.
“We know you don’t control who applies to be on the committee or which projects ask to be funded. And while LIFT allows you to fund project types that have never been supported by tourism taxes before in our state, there may be uncertainty about taking those steps. But elected leaders we talked to support LIFT funds being used for housing and not as another TPDF,” Hampton said.
McCormick Field upgrades move closer to funding
Funding for upgrades to McCormick Field, owned by the city of Asheville, appears increasingly likely after the BCTDA took its first public step toward joining the team with a unanimous vote Wednesday.
The TPDF committee will review the city’s application before a final vote on the matter comes before the board at its June 28 meeting.
In the proposal, the BCTDA would provide $23 million — including $1.4 million annually over the next 15 years — to the project, making up 44% of total funding.
As a part of the reworked 23-year lease, the Asheville Tourists would pay $469,000 a year in rent to play at McCormick Field, and in the unlikely event Major League Baseball pulled its affiliation with the Tourists, owner Dewine Seeds Silver Dollar Baseball would be required to provide professional baseball in the space through the end of the lease.
If approved, renovations would include $16.5 million for upgraded visitor amenities like expansion of the existing concourse, an entrance plaza, scoreboard updates and an expanded press box. Enhancements to each clubhouse, new LED sport lighting and video surveillance systems are also included in the upgrades.
Chris Corl, Asheville’s director of community and regional entertainment facilities, said the city plans to use the space to host concerts, craft fairs and possibly winter ice skating to diversify the offerings at McCormick Field once renovations are complete.
This article was updated July 9 to reflect that former state Sen. Chuck Edwards is no longer in the N.C. Senate.