“We were shut down for four months and didn’t know what to expect, didn’t know if we’d be able to open again,” remembers Torin Kexel, owner of The Flying Bike, an electric bike tour and rentals company in downtown Asheville.
Kexel was one of nearly 400 recipients of grants through the Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund, a program launched by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority last year to provide emergency relief to local tourism-related businesses. During their Aug. 25 meeting, members of the BCTDA board heard an update on the program from its administrator, Noah Wilson of Mountain BizWorks, and from business owners who used the grants.
Senate Bill 704, signed into law in May 2020, allowed the BCTDA to establish the one-time grant source using $5 million from the authority’s Tourism Product Development Fund. That money, which came from the 25% of county occupancy tax revenues normally allocated for tourism-related capital expenses, was used for emergency grants of up to $50,000 for local businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wilson explained that 394 grants were made available to restaurants, retail establishments, studios and galleries, event venues, breweries and other entertainment and tourism-based businesses. Hotels and other lodging businesses were not eligible for the funding.
Of grant recipients who responded to a recent survey, Wilson said, 97% were open as of June 30, a small decrease from the 98% that remained open as of Dec. 31. Nine respondents were closed at the end of June, including five that had closed permanently. Of the 2,972 tourism-related jobs lost at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, 2,763 jobs have been recovered, with businesses reporting an additional 569 job openings as of June.
Kexel of the Flying Bike says that the $8,625 grant his business received helped him hire back employees and create new positions. “We’re now up to triple the number of staff that we had going into COVID,” he said during the meeting.
“The fund really helped me a lot,” said owner Tim Green of Sole82, a shoe and apparel store at 46 S. Market St. Green received a $5,000 grant from the program, which he said enabled him to hire two new employees to help manage the store.
Cristina Hall Ackley, who received a $19,780 grant for her business, alcoholic ginger beer brewery Ginger’s Revenge, added that she lost more than half her staff at the start of the pandemic. Now, she maintains a roster of 17 employees.
“We were shut down for about three months. There was just a lot of uncertainty,” she said. “Our team went from 11 team members to six. While we got [federal Paycheck Protection Program] funding, we were kind of uncertain about reopening.
“This grant really gave us the confidence to not just hire back our front of house team, but specifically to hire a tasting room manager and someone who could help solve problems, someone who could help figure out how to pivot. Someone who could figure out how to keep our business open safely,” Ackley continued. “And that also allowed me to focus on other areas of the business.”
While local businesses continue to recover from the fallout of COVID-19, Wilson said, efforts such as expanded outdoor seating and providing takeout options will be central to keeping them going through the rest of the year.
“Obviously right now, the No. 1 thing we’re going to hear is, ‘Get through delta,’” Wilson said, referring to the variant of the coronavirus associated with a regional surge in infection rates and hospitalizations. “We’ll be much better off if we can have a strong finish to this year and be safe throughout the winter so spring can open up nice and strong.”
June breaks occupancy tax revenue records
The nearly $3.4 million in occupancy tax revenue that the BCTDA collected for June represents an all-time monthly high for the authority, according to financial statements. The figure reflects a jump of roughly $900,000, or more than 36%, from pre-pandemic June 2019 revenues.
Lodging sales, which include hotels, motels and short-term vacation rentals, also hit a record number in June at more than $56.4 million. The previous high-water mark of $53.8 million was set in October 2020.