The first meeting of the Community Leadership Council — convened by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority — provided a new forum for familiar kudos and criticisms of the area’s tourism industry. Nearly 40 invited community members, including elected officials, municipal staffers, nonprofit employees and business folk, accepted the TDA’s request to participate in the June 12 meeting, part of the first phase of the authority’s yearlong Tourism Management and Investment Plan.
First announced in February, the plan aims to collect data and input from community leaders, residents and public entities to develop guidelines for investing a portion of hotel occupancy tax revenues in community based projects over a 10-year period, shifting away from a yearly application-based process. The 11-member appointed TDA board oversees the use of the occupancy tax, which is expected to hit $25 million this year.
Many committee members noted the negative impacts of the booming hospitality industry, such as increased traffic and strain on taxpayer-funded resources and infrastructure, while others pointed to the industry’s role in stimulating economic growth and creating new jobs.
“For me, when on a Wednesday night it’s shoulder to shoulder downtown, that’s success to me. Because I remember when it was a ghost town and I could have shouted, and no one would have heard me for eight blocks,” said Kevan Frazier, executive director of Western Carolina University’s Asheville-based programming. Frazier also owns Asheville By Foot Walking Tours and Well Played Board Game Cafe, which he said relies on out-of-town visitors. “Tourism has been the fuel that led Asheville to being one of the most successful stories in city revitalization in the entire country, so I get concerned when we get hooked on the negative components of tourism.”
Speaking on behalf of the YMI Cultural Center, Executive Director Dewana Little acknowledged that tourism is a key economic driver in Asheville. Still, she said she hopes that collaborating with the TDA and others through the TMIP will connect minority communities and other groups to a more equitable share of tourism’s economic benefits.
“I’m from four generations here in Asheville, so I get the dynamic. I’ve watched the transition over my lifetime. My father watched it over his lifetime, so I understand that it’s a major part of our economy,” Little said. “But how do we tie the people who have been historically marginalized out of it into it? What does that look like? There are just so many questions when it comes to actually bringing in people who have not had access to this booming and very fruitful market to the table.”
While the TMIP aims to establish a more collaborative approach to funding decisions, it will not change the purposes for which occupancy taxes may be used. State law stipulates that 75% of the revenue must be spent on advertising and public relations efforts to increase tourism and overnight stays, while the remaining 25% funds projects with the potential to boost tourism throughout the county. That means the money can’t be used for city services used by tourists such as police and fire service or to defray other costs associated with managing the impacts of large numbers of visitors, like street and sidewalk maintenance and cleaning.
Fresh from approving the city’s $190 million fiscal year 2020 budget the night before, Mayor Esther Manheimer challenged the idea that those legislative constraints can’t be altered.
“We have about $50 million in public safety infrastructure needs, fire stations, those kinds of things, so we’re really looking for a way to leverage this money effectively and also continue to have a conversation about, ‘Is the current structure acceptable?’” Manheimer said. “What we’re talking about here is within the confines of the rules. But has this money grown to such a size that there’s a time to have conversation about reapportioning it?”
The TDA said it will assemble a steering committee composed of former board members to guide the initiative and hold public forums to gather input from the community. The first of four phases of the $440,000 project is expected to wrap up by the end of this summer, with the effort scheduled for completion in April 2020. The agency then plans to present its findings by mid-September.