On the defensive: TDA board members react to criticism

Himanshu Karvir at Nov. 20 BCTDA meeting
PUSHING BACK: Himanshu Karvir, vice chair of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, shares thoughts on community criticism of his organization at the group's Nov. 20 meeting. Screen capture courtesy of Sunshine Request

Himanshu Karvir, the vice chair of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority and CEO of Virtelle Hospitality, has had enough. During a Nov. 20 meeting of the quasi-governmental agency, he said he was tired of news reports, op-eds and social media posts that paint the BCTDA, as well as tourism as a whole, in a bad light.

“It’s taken a long, slow beating that has finally made me write this. This constant barrage of negative opinions posted online,” Karvir said, reading from prepared notes. “We have been putting out data and information [about] how much it benefits Buncombe County residents on lowering their property taxes; we highlight $44 million in investments we make in our community.” To doubters in the community, he went on, “Those numbers don’t matter.”

Karvir said he was primarily responding to a Nov. 15 op-ed by activist and blogger Ami Worthen published in the Citizen Times. In the piece, Worthen calls for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners to stop collecting the 6% tax on county lodging that funds tourism advertising and tourism-related community projects and urges the abolition of the tourism agency. Worthen cites increased gentrification, environmental and infrastructure impacts and a lack of accountability for TDA officials as reasons to eliminate the authority.

During nearly 20 minutes of remarks, transcribed in full at avl.mx/6qf, Karvir said he took “great offense” to the commentary and disputed each of Worthen’s points. He pointed to the agency’s limited, state-imposed mandate for occupancy tax spending and argued that tourism was not responsible for environmental degradation. He also noted that Buncombe County provides thorough oversight of the agency’s activities.

“Our meetings are public; our agenda is public; our budget is public; there’s an attorney sitting here to make sure that we stay in our guidelines, the legislative mandate,” Karvir said. “To me, there are real checks and balances here, and if there is something that even looks like it’s out, we have board members that bring it up. So again, this opinion that is posted here is not based on any reality.”

Karvir attributed the challenges outlined in the op-ed, such as gentrification and aging infrastructure, to local government policies and neglect. He also claimed that the local media feed a negative narrative about the TDA by using “divisive headlines” and not publishing data and news stories that portray the positive impacts of the agency and tourism in the community.

“In my opinion, there are no problems with the TDA. The problems lie elsewhere. The problems lies in the opinions like [Worthen’s]. The problem lies with individuals that have nothing to do with our industry and have no idea how hotels operate, how the TDA operates and what the occupancy tax does for our community,” Karvir said. “[The media are] actively posting negative tourism stories on known Facebook pages that are active on anti-tourism and actively soliciting comments. And I get all that stuff, but I think the problem lies there.”

TDA Chair Gary Froeba described Karvir’s comments as “a big wow” but agreed that the board should seek more control of the tourism narrative. News stories, activist efforts and community voices, he said, too often raise concerns about the negative aspects of tourism without highlighting the TDA’s positive contributions.

“We’re tired of being beaten up and we’re gonna start pushing back, just like [Karvir] has shown today,” Froeba said. “We have to stand up for our industry. We’re not a bad industry — we’re a good industry and we have to support [Explore Asheville President and CEO] Stephanie [Brown] and her team. … We can’t let them get pummeled like they’re getting pummeled. It’s just not fair to them and it’s not fair to us.”

Himanshu Karvir Transcript 11-20-19 by Daniel Walton on Scribd

Editor’s note: The original headline for this story, TDA board members push back on negative tourism views, was changed at 5:38 p.m. on Nov. 21.

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21 thoughts on “On the defensive: TDA board members react to criticism

  1. ashevillain7

    The title of this article is pretty disingenuous.

    From all of the commentary that I’ve seen, it seems people hold negative views of the TDA and how they function moreso than the actual tourism. Worthen’s op-ed even states this in the second paragraph:

    “As a significant part of our local economy, I am not advocating against tourism per se — I am advocating against the existence of a tourism-driving entity that has incredible power, a narrow agenda, unsustainable outcomes, and no real checks and balances for their actions.”

    • Virginia Daffron

      Thanks for weighing in. While the headline was not untrue — Karvir and others did push back against perceived anti-tourism views in their remarks — we decided an alternative headline could more accurately reflect the thrust of the comments. We have changed the headline and noted the change.

  2. Lulz

    BCTDA has a bad rep because they are doing bad things. 44 million they gave they say? Lowered my property taxes? Either they’re totally inept or totally dishonest. BCTDA is living OFF the taxpayers. Add to that their newest contribution to the Chow Chow festival where a few members of the board have a direct financial interest in it. LOL what a sham and what a disgrace. Problem is that they’re allowed to do it because the politicians are in cahoots with them. You want the BCTDA to change? Get rid of those that support them on the commission and in council.

  3. Big Al

    TDA has boosted tourism, which has had the unintended side effects of massively increasing local real estate prices and reducing available affordable housing to untenable levels.

    How much of TDA’s $44 million has gone to addressing affordable housing? None that I can see.

    Let’s see how well all of those new hotels, and restaurants operate when no one can afford to live here to work at them.

    And what exactly do you mean by “we’re gonna start pushing back”? Last time I checked, this was a democracy, and you work for US! Or maybe we need to replace snowflakes like Karvir and Froeba for someone who listens to the public without making threats like petty dictators.

  4. bsummers

    “In my opinion, there are no problems with the TDA. The problems lie elsewhere. The problems lies in the opinions like [Worthen’s].”

    Wow. Did the Holiday Inn guy just tell us to shut up? Tone deaf and arrogant much?

    “We’re tired of being beaten up and we’re gonna start pushing back, just like [Karvir] has shown today,”

    Maybe you didn’t live in Asheville the last time the people who ran the Grove Park Inn tried to throw their weight around. It didn’t end well for them.

    • Lulz

      BCTDA serves no purpose except to enrich themselves and those in the industry. The funds funneled to the Chow Chow festival alone, where some at the BCTDA have PERSONAL financial gains at stake, not only raises ethical matters but criminal as well in my opinion. Yeah they might have contributed 44 million, but the underlying reason is to get more tourists to those area they put the money into. It comes with strings attached for sure. Otherwise they push an industry that is heavily subsidized by the taxpayers and has created huge burdens on the city residents especially.

    • NFB

      “In my opinion, there are no problems with the TDA. The problems lie elsewhere. The problems lies in the opinions like [Worthen’s].”

      And opinions like Worthen get formed by the actions of the TDA who, as Karvir once again demonstrates, continue to hide behind the state law that will not allow any of the room tax money to go to help pay for services and infrastructure that tourists use while they are here. Instead that falls on local residents. The TDA may be 100% in line with the law, and may have its lawyer to make sure they sty there, but it continues to ignore calls to support changes to the law. In 2016, in exchange for City Counil approval of his plans to convert the BB&T building into a luxury hotel, John McKibbion promised to advocate for changes to the law but there has been no follow-up on those promises after 4 years.

      What other industry has the state collect a tax for it that the state then hands over to that industry for the purpose of said industry to promote itself? Why is tourism so special that it gets this? Tax dollars are involved yet the two elected officials on the board (appointed from City Council and County Commission) do not have a vote and the majority of board members must be hotel owners who insures a high level if inbreeding. Mr. Karvir may be upset about the TDA’s woeful public image, but the TDA has only itself to blame for this image.

  5. TDA is corrupt and must be stopped

    My vote goes to anyone running for county commissioner that runs on a platform of ending the occupancy tax. If the BCTDA wants to continue to run it can be funded straight out of the hoteliers pockets.
    Step 1: Repeal the occupancy tax
    Step 2: Replace the occupancy tax with an annual occupancy permit equal to the average room tax collected.
    Step 3: Collect all that sweet sweet tax revenue and use it on crazy things like sidewalks, roads, affordable housing, offsetting the skyrocketing property taxes.

    The people are tired of you BCTDA, you are self dealing, corrupt, and poisoning the water. Keep being sensitive to the attacks and keep trying to take credit for things that you have not done. We see through that now.
    Tourism will continue without you, the only differences we will notice when you are gone is that the people of Buncombe county will be able to use the tax revenue generated from their hard work for the good of the public, not your pet projects. And maybe more diversity in the tourists.

  6. Gordon Smith

    It will serve the TDA to honor the voices of the people. The pearl-clutching of the tourism bosses betrays a continuing lack of awareness.

    For years and years, the people have called for an honest conversation about wages, infrastructure, profits to multinationals, overtourism, quality of life, and more. I love the positives of tourism, AND I believe it can be done more responsibly, respectfully, and sustainably. If the TDA remains unwilling to bring on third-party entities to ruthlessly examine the realities and possibilities, then it is time for a structural change.

  7. I’m REALLY for family, community, & tourism

    Really? For tourism but you can’t Use funds you generate to promote it? It will only help Asheville to abolish TDA?! Take all that sweet sweet money!!!!!!!! Those ideas are not well thought out and won’t happen. It’s not that simple. Tourism funding has a legal, legitimate, and, closely monitored system of checks and balances locally and at the state level. There are a lot of accusations implying criminal behavior and people pocketing money and evil in the TDA, and yes, by connection, it ties in to any tourism business. Guess what folks, if you live in Asheville and you work at or have a business, you play music, you eat at local restaurants, you are a doctor, a nurse, a car salesman, a waiter, a dog groomer, a parent with kids that play soccer, baseball, go to the arboretum, go to local breweries, enjoy the architecture and unique culture and history of downtown, or almost ANYTHING else in Asheville then you are both benefiting and enjoying the effects of tourism on Asheville. Talk of higher housing costs is real. Do you think shutting down people’s ability to get support and guidance from TDA services is going to magically lower housing costs!? Not. Do you think that other industries and businesses in the community haven’t gotten together to come up with creative ways to support growth of the health care industry in our community? Other cities and even states cut marketing for tourism and they realized very quickly that neighboring cities and states welcomed those visitors, that were dropping tax reducing cash into the previous tourism towns, and laughed all the way to the new downtown park, nice restaurants, and family activities with the newly found visitors they welcomed. In the meantime, we can watch as those community supporting dollars drive to Cherokee after seeing the giant Casino signs in downtown. Brilliant!!

    • TDA is corrupt and must be stopped

      OK Stephanie,
      I realize you are fighting for your job. Just because the TDA leaves doesn’t mean the tourists will stop coming here. I think you are missing the point, it is not Anti tourism – it is anti TDA.

  8. Curious

    I’m curious how tourism and hotels, per se, drive up house values. Can someone explain.
    What appears to be driving up house prices is people moving here for retirement, after cashing out big on major gains in selling their houses in California and other places, and then bidding up house prices in Asheville because the owners can ask highly inflated prces and get them.
    Are we against the retirement industry as well as the tourism industry?

    • NFB

      Tourism and housing costs are connected in the sense that there is a strong connection between the tourism and real estate industries here. It is no accident that the Parade of Homes takes place on one of the busiest weekends for tourism in Asheville. Go to the Chamber of Commerce visitor center and you’ll see a huge section that is a relocation center promoting realtors and other services designed to see Asheville as a place to live, not just visit. It would not be much of a stretch to say that significant number of new residents first traveled here as tourists.

      Any many of them buy up houses as you said either as permanent residences or as vacation homes. Retirees are only one part of this, but many of them first came to Asheville due to the promotion of the area done by the TDA, so there is a connection. It is also a connection that is compounded by the lower wages many who serve tourists are paid. Hotel maids, waiters, waitresses, etc. quickly get priced out of the market when the TDA has 20 million to spend encouraging people to visit and eventually move here.

    • bsummers

      And XPress, I know you took note of the attack on the “media” here.

      “[The media are] actively posting negative tourism stories on known Facebook pages that are active on anti-tourism and actively soliciting comments. And I get all that stuff, but I think the problem lies there.”

      “TDA Chair Gary Froeba described Karvir’s comments as “a big wow” but agreed that the board should seek more control of the tourism narrative. News stories, activist efforts and community voices, he said, too often raise concerns about the negative aspects of tourism without highlighting the TDA’s positive contributions.

      The TDA should “seek more control” of the narrative? Right – anything to avoid acknowledging that residents have a valid argument and you should consider making some changes. So instead, scream “Fake News”, dig in your heels and continue to create division, rather than try to be good neighbors. Everyone knows that TDA has millions of tax dollars with which to seek to control the narrative.

      But we’re also aware that the State law that gives you those millions prohibit you from spending it on local advertising. People will be watching out for it. I believe that TDA digital ads touting how great tourism is for locals ran on the AC-T website during 2017, while coincidentally three TDA-friendly candidates were running for Council. I’m not sure you want to test the legality of that sort of thing again.

      (All three of those candidates lost, BTW.)

      • NFB

        Let us not also forget how the TDA took control of the narrative a few years ago when there was some discussion about raising the room tax and having that portion go to help pay for local services paid for by locals and used by tourists. The TDA took control of that narrative by insisting that such a raise would make rooms too expensive and thus people would go to Myrtle Beach and Gatlinburg instead of Asheville.

        Then, just a few years later the TDA started panicking about so MANY new hotels being built in Asheville and the prospect that they might not be able to find heads for all those beds. So, they requested a raise in the room tax so that they could have even MORE money to promote Asheville as a tourist destination. Suddenly they were no longer worried about it making rooms to expensive.

        And then they wonder why they have such a poor public image.

  9. John

    Why do anti occupancy tax? The 6% is collected by hotels, why should they not be allowed to us it all?
    If hospitals added a hospital tax or restaurants a separate food tax why should they use that on other projects?

    • TDA is corrupt and must be stopped

      An occupancy tax is not unique. What is unique is diverting funds generated by a tax for private use.
      “If hospitals added a hospital tax or restaurants a separate food tax why should they use that on other projects?”
      Why not just build that into the price you charge? That is what everyone else does???
      The occupancy tax is a tax, and those tax funds should be for the resident’s of Buncombe county to decide how to use.

  10. Scott Thompson

    I think we all know that tourists are not coming to Asheville because of the hotels. They come for the food, drink, art, music, amazing outdoor activities, and the friendliness of the people. I agree with Amy that it will take a lot of effort to get the states occupancy tax rules updated, but disagree with her conclusion that we should decline the occupancy tax. Instead, I suggest we acknowledge that the service workers, artists, and musicians are the ones driving the tourist economy, but they are not benefiting from it. Since they are indeed part of marketing tourism in Asheville, I think we should set aside a large portion of the TDA “marketing” budget to pay a living wage to our service workers and provide grants to our artists and musicians. The hotel owners on the TDA will of course cry foul over this (indeed, they whole article is them crying foul), but that means we need to convince the council to abolish the current TDA board and fill with more creative problem-solvers.

    • bsummers

      State law determines how the TDA operates, including the makeup of the Board. A majority will always be hotel owners. To make any real change, you’d have to change the law.

  11. CHCollins

    If tourism promotion is such a good and necessary thing, why don’t local hotel owners just form a guild — the guild members could all agree to contribute x% of their receipts to the “pot” — 100% of which the guild could control and spend any way they wish!

    Why don’t the hoteliers want to do this? Because (a) some hotels would choose not to join the “guild” and would freeload on the contributions of the other guild members, and eventually all the members would realize this and quit. Getting the government to impose a tax on all hotels forces every owner to participate, which solves that problem — how convenient! and (b) a tax is much easier for hoteliers to hide behind — they can claim that the room price is p dollars instead of p dollars plus x%. (Hotels *never* advertise the price with taxes and fees.) If hotels had to raise their prices to cover their contribution to a guild, that would be awful — it would mean the advertised price would be higher and customers would know the real price they are paying for a room. This is why the hotel owners want an occupancy tax. Kicking back 25% to the community is a small price to pay for this kind of deal. What busipness owner wouldn’t want such an arrangement?

    In fact, it’s such a good idea that the County should also enact a 6% Wear-Clothing Tax, which would be levied on all local clothing purchases. The proceeds from the tax would be turned over to a Wear-Clothing Promotion Board (WCPB) who would be allowed to spend 75% of those receipts on advertising and promoting the idea of wearing clothing, especially clothing offered by local retailers. Hey, people can never wear enough clothes, right? If our community does not promote the idea of wearing clothes, people might start walking around naked and clothing stores would go out of business. Is that what you clothing-haters want? Just you wait!

  12. Lulz

    What’s really eye opening is how the issue crosses over to people who usually don’t agree with much else. That’s kinda scary to think about if I were in their shoes.

    TDA can either learn from it or ignore it. But I’m afraid their own greed and egos will prevent them from realizing that most will not miss them one bit if they simply went away.

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