BCTDA adopts $27.5 million operating budget

TRACKING TOURISM: The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority passed its annual budget at its June 28 meeting in the Mountain View Room of UNC Asheville's Sherrill Center. Photo by Frances O'Connor

The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority voted 6-1 to adopt a $27.5 million operating budget June 28 for next fiscal year, including an increase in Explore Asheville staff salaries and a decrease in marketing spending.

The budget represents a $1.7 million dollar decrease from last fiscal year due to declining occupancy tax revenues, which almost entirely fund the BCTDA.

Andrew Celwyn was the lone dissenter on the grounds that salaries and incentive bonuses for staff far outpace those given to city and county workers. (Board members Elizabeth Putnam and Brenda Durden were not present.)

“The staff of Explore Asheville get paid way beyond what the city and county are paying. It sends a message, and it’s not a message that’s good,” Celwyn said when announcing that he planned to vote against the budget.

LONE DISSENTER: Board member Andrew Celwyn was the lone vote against the 2023-24 budget. He said giving Explore Asheville staff a higher pay raise than city and county employees sends the wrong message to the community. Photo by Frances O’Connor

The total paid toward salaries is increasing in part because 11 positions that went unfilled for part of last fiscal year are now filled, said Ashley Greenstein, TDA spokesperson. Staff members are getting what amounts to an 8% increase in their base salaries for “performance and market adjustments,” she said.

For comparison, Buncombe County employees will get a 7.28% cost-of-living adjustment next fiscal year, and city of Asheville employees are slated to receive a 5% pay bump.

Celwyn told Xpress after the meeting that the difference in pay reinforces a common talking point around Buncombe County that leaders value tourists more than locals. “When we pay [tourism marketing staff] more than teachers, firefighters and police officers, what does that say?”

Several other board members jumped in to defend the staff raises, which TDA President Vic Isley said were necessary to be competitive with similar destination marketing organizations. Explore Asheville has lost candidates to other jobs within Asheville, she added.

‘I don’t think we should say “[city and county staff] are underpaid, therefore, we should follow that trend,’” said board member Matthew Lehman, who is the general manager of the Grand Bohemian Hotel Asheville.  “Should I pay my hotel employees less because a teacher doesn’t make enough?

The operating budget, which represents two-thirds of the overall $39.9 million budget as defined by state legislation, also included a $2.4 million decrease in projected marketing expenditures in the coming year to $19.5 million. That decrease will be taken from net media spending on advertisements because its use is the most flexible, Greenstein said.

Board member HP Patel, president of BCA Hotels, said he was concerned with the marketing decrease for next year on the heels of the “alarming trend” of lower-than-expected hotel occupancy numbers from this spring.

“Going forward, we need to figure out ways to make sure we’re staying relevant,” he said, citing concerns about negative news about downtown safety and the increasing number of hotel beds available.

According to a staff presentation, 2023’s occupancy numbers for hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and vacation rentals were lower than 2022’s in March, April and May. In May, for example, occupancy at hotels was down 3% from 2021 and down 11% for vacation rentals over the same time frame.

The budget also includes $571,000 for the administration of the Tourism Product Development Fund and $340,000 for the Legacy Investment from Tourism Fund. There is also $250,000 set aside to fund workforce development programs, funded by revenue the TDA makes from its website.

The TPDF and LIFT funds are slated to have $6.2 million each to fund tourism-related community projects next fiscal year, making up the other third of the overall budget.

TDA benches McCormick Field renovations

The BCTDA delayed voting on a $22.95 million funding request for McCormick Field renovations until its July 26 meeting.

The funding request would be the largest in the history of the TPDF, and the committee negotiated with the city of Asheville and the Asheville Tourists to add certain terms to the funding agreement.

Under the added terms, the BCTDA will have naming rights to a concourse or similar area within the baseball field complex, and Explore Asheville staff reserves the right to book rentable space for interested groups.

Additionally, the Tourists will host one hospitality night each season allowing local hospitality workers to attend a game for free or at a reduced price.

The BCTDA also established a venue rental fee waiver program for McCormick Field, managed by Explore Asheville staff, and reserved the right to make additional debt payments to lower the total cost of debt service on the stadium’s renovations.

The city of Asheville and Buncombe County have already agreed to contribute $27.9 million and $5 million, respectively, to the project over 20 years. The Tourists will pay $469,000 annually to play at the stadium. The funds will cover improvements to the stadium’s clubhouse, construction of facilities for female umpires and other baseball staff, and expansion of the concourse, among other updates.



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