According to Stephanie Brown, president and CEO of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority’s Explore Asheville convention and visitors bureau, area residents had offered “terrific amounts of public engagement” about the authority’s Tourism Management and Investment Plan. But during a Sept. 3 presentation to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, she wasn’t ready to reveal exactly what members of the public had shared.
“I think it would be premature to jump ahead,” Brown said, when asked by board Chair Brownie Newman about specific takeaways of public input on the plan, collected through a series of August workshops and surveys. The TMIP aims to guide investments on a roughly 10-year time frame for the authority’s Tourism Product Development Fund, which by law must spend 25% of occupancy taxes on capital investment projects that drive new overnight visits to the county. Since its establishment in 2001, the fund has awarded $44 million to projects such as the Asheville Art Museum, Asheville Community Theater and WNC Farmers Market.
Alongside positive feedback, Brown said, some comments had highlighted the drawbacks of the region’s popularity with visitors. “We recognize that the impacts of tourism are creating some experiences in our community that residents don’t like, and there are feelings that we’re being overwhelmed by tourism,” she said.
In response, Brown suggested that the plan would develop a different perspective on how occupancy tax revenues might be used to mitigate tourism’s negative effects. While she emphasized that the TDA would continue to operate within the boundaries of its enabling legislation — a frequent refrain in public statements she’s made over the past several years — she said the process would bring a “new set of eyes around what that means and what really qualifies for funding.”
The TMIP comes at a critical point in the expansion of the region’s tourism economy. As outlined in Brown’s presentation, the property tax value of hotels in the county is projected to nearly double from its 2015 level by 2022: from $6.4 million to $12.7 million. That value is tied only to hotels already approved or under construction, meaning that Asheville City Council’s proposed hotel moratorium would have no impact on tax growth associated with approved or existing lodging facilities.
Brown hinted that a newly envisioned approach to tourism spending might seek to spread visitors and economic development throughout the county with placemaking improvements. Early discussions with Buncombe officials, as presented on June 18 by Tim Love, director of intergovernmental projects, identified multiple opportunities in areas outside of Asheville, such as a proposed sports complex in Swannanoa and greenway-connected trails in Weaverville.
“I do think a lot of good is going to come out of this, and I can tell a lot of work is going into it,” Newman said after Brown’s presentation. “The only process concern I have is that, if it is just limited to capital [investment], do we miss part of the potential conversation?” he then asked, referencing the 75% of occupancy tax revenues currently dedicated to tourism promotion.
“The discussions are not limited to capital,” Brown replied. “In the end, we may have priorities that we work together to find other sources of funding to accomplish them or look for flexibility in the resources that are available.”
BCTDA officials plan to present the results from the first phase of TMIP planning at a public forum on Tuesday or Wednesday, Oct. 22 or 23. The process is expected to wrap up in April. More information is available through the authority’s website at avl.mx/6hg.