Recent meetings of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority have included a recitation of reports touting the strength of the tourism sector of Asheville’s economy. While the board’s July 31 meeting began in the same vein, board members soon found themselves exploring new territory: a proposed ban that would temporarily limit new hotel growth in the city.
Asheville City Council member and nonvoting BCTDA board member Julie Mayfield raised the issue, saying Council will discuss a temporary ban during an upcoming Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting on Thursday, Aug. 29. A moratorium, Mayfield said, would halt the construction of new hotels inside city limits and allow time for Council members to develop specific criteria for evaluating the suitability of new projects.
She explained that the idea followed a controversial June 25 vote that allowed the conversion of the Flatiron Building on Battery Park Avenue into a boutique hotel.
“I think the impetus for this is pretty clear for anybody who’s been paying attention,” Mayfield said. “We’ve had a number of hotels come through Council and we’ve had votes falling on different lines. It’s pretty clear that everybody’s been applying a different set of criteria to approving or not approving hotels.”
According to BCTDA financial reports for fiscal year 2019 through May 31, hotels make up the lion’s share of room sales in Asheville — 78% compared with 3% for bed and breakfasts and 19% for vacation rentals — and are on track to break more than $300 million in annual sales.
But how a temporary hotel ban might impact future room sales, occupancy tax revenues or BCTDA marketing strategies was not explored during the meeting. Gary Froeba, area managing director at Omni Hotels and Resorts and chair of the board, said that the quasi-governmental agency will remain neutral on the issue while continuing to pursue its state-mandated mission.
“In case there’s any misconception out there, this board has not taken any action on either supporting it or not supporting it, and we’re not going to take a position on it at this time,” Froeba said. “We will continue to function as we currently are, which is to drive visitation to the community for economic vitality, and we will leave it up to the City Council to come up with policy.”
Mayfield noted that moratoriums are intended to be temporary and pointed out that under North Carolina state law, Council will need to specify the duration of the ban and submit a plan of how it intends to address the issues that created the need for the action. The law also states that Council may not extend or renew the moratorium unless the issues were shown to persist despite the city’s having explored all available opportunities to address the problem.
“My guess is that we would be talking about somewhere between six months and a year,” Mayfield said of the proposed temporary ban.
According to Mayfield, City Manager Debra Campbell plans to tap experts from the Urban Land Institute, a research and education organization that specializes in real estate and land use, to help develop recommendations for the city. Mayfield also called for the establishment of a community advisory committee, which would allow members to provide input on the issue of future hotel development.
Following Mayfield’s remarks, Kit Cramer, president and CEO of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, suggested that after an approval process is established by Council, city staff, rather than Council members, should guide future hotel development.
“Once a common-sense, predictable development policy has been created, we’d like to see city staff manage it, rather than the City Council delving into management issues. They need to remain at a policy level,” Cramer told Xpress after the meeting. “[Mayfield] has maintained that the resulting projects are better as a result of the Council’s involvement. I think that opens the door to inconsistent treatment of projects.”
Cramer said that while she has noted that hotel growth and tourism have created both positive and negative effects within the community, she cautioned against singling out the industry.
“We recognize that people have mixed feelings about hotel development. We also respect the right of property owners and the value of tourism,” Cramer said. “We encourage our leaders to not pit one section of the economy versus another. Each industry has a ripple effect on all the other aspects of the economy. We need healthy, well-balanced growth.”