As the members of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority heard at their Jan. 27 meeting, a $5 million COVID-19 relief program funded by occupancy tax revenues provided a crucial lifeline for over 380 local businesses last year. But as the pandemic extends into the winter and the area’s tourism sector continues to suffer, the board expressed little interest in offering a similar program again.
Last year’s effort diverted money from the TDA’s Tourism Product Development Fund, which normally supports local government or nonprofit capital projects that attract visitors, into grants of up to $50,000 for tourism-related businesses other than lodging. According to Noah Wilson, who helped administer the program through Asheville-based nonprofit Mountain BizWorks, the money helped those businesses rehire 1,981 of the 2,972 employees they had laid off due to the pandemic.
“It showed our community’s belief in the value of small businesses,” Wilson said about what the funding meant to local entrepreneurs. “For many businesses, that was almost the most important part of this, more than almost anything else, was just that level of support.”
But many of those who received the grants remain on unstable footing, Wilson continued. Only 18% of businesses considered themselves to be financially sound, according to a survey conducted in December, while 40% said they were financially challenged.
As of Dec. 31, the latest date for which data is available, the TDA had over $3 million in the same pool of funding previously used to power the business grants. Board member Andrew Celwyn, owner of the Herbiary retail shop in downtown Asheville, asked his colleagues to recommend that the money be distributed into the community as quickly as possible.
“I’m disappointed we haven’t done anything thus far. I think we’re failing our community if we don’t get that $3 million out there,” Celwyn said. “We have another opportunity right now with this $3 million, and I feel like it’s slipping away.”
But Himanshu Karvir, the board’s chair and CEO of Virtelle Hospitality, noted that last year’s grant program had required legislative approval by the N.C. General Assembly, as would any future change to the use of occupancy tax funds. “I don’t want to say that enthusiasm was there last time over at the state, but it’s not there right now,” he said regarding conversations he’d had with local lawmakers.
Instead of pushing an uncooperative state for authority to reallocate tax revenues, Karvir continued, the TDA would do as much as possible with its earned income, which is not subject to legislative restrictions. The board voted 8-1 to allocate $40,000 of that money to the One Buncombe Fund, an effort organized by Buncombe County that will provide business grants of up to $5,000. (Celwyn dissented, saying the money should instead directly support struggling tourism workers.)
And board member James Poole, general manager of The Foundry hotel, argued that the TDA needed to look after its own interests first before helping others. “We don’t know what we could truly need to support that is critical to our success in the near term,” he said. “Nobody’s going to come and save us.”