When Explore Asheville’s then-President and CEO Stephanie Brown was offered a new job outside Asheville last fall, she says, the timing felt right.
Since 2012, Brown had led the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority through a period of enormous growth; as the public face of the agency, she’d also dealt with the backlash that accompanied the TDA’s role in transforming a small mountain town into a national tourist destination. And after eight years at the helm, Brown was ready to move on. She anticipated spending her remaining months at the agency shepherding proposed occupancy tax legislation and formalizing the next year’s budget. Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Rather than tie up loose ends, Brown and the TDA board had to address a crisis that left Asheville’s businesses in economic free fall. They rushed to authorize $50,000 of emergency funding in April to One Buncombe, a community COVID-19 response providing aid to individuals and businesses. And in May, the authority funded the Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund, a $5 million grant program to help tourism businesses and nonprofits reopen.
Although the economic and health emergencies continue, Brown completed her contract with the TDA as planned on June 30 and began her new job as the executive vice president of SMAR Insights, an Indianapolis-based marketing and research firm, in July.
With no permanent CEO in place and rising COVID-19 numbers in Buncombe County and surrounding areas, the role of the TDA — and Western North Carolina tourism as a whole — may seem uncertain at best. But Brown maintains that as the region adapts to the pandemic, economic turbulence and a new leader may allow the agency to reimagine its place in the community.
“I’m glad that I was here to help navigate this challenge,” Brown told Xpress before her departure. “I think it’s also really great timing for a new leader to fill my shoes and bring their perspectives.”
In February, local elected leaders, including Buncombe Commission Chair Brownie Newman and Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, and members of the Asheville Buncombe Hotel Association were poised to jointly advocate for reallocation of the county’s occupancy tax funds. State law currently designates 75% of the tax’s revenue for tourism advertising and 25% for tourism-related capital expenditures; the proposed change to the law pushed for a 66% to 33% split along the same lines. The legislation would have also expanded the TDA board to include more community members in addition to hotel owners and other tourism industry insiders.
But the legislation never made it to North Carolina’s General Assembly for a vote. When the April short session rolled around, lawmakers were rushing to pass emergency coronavirus relief packages, which kept them from discussing most other business. The TDA-sponsored Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund, guided through the legislative process by Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, bucked that trend and ended up being the only piece of local legislation to come out of the session.
Both the House and the Senate are set to reconvene Wednesday, Sept. 9, but Manheimer told Xpress that the matter was unlikely to be brought before state legislators this year.
“Any session before January is just going to be quick as needed to address very limited, emergency-only legislation,” she explained. “My sense is that they’re not going to pick up other things that aren’t terribly urgent.”
Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, noted that the July resolution adjourning the GA prohibits lawmakers from considering matters other than COVID-19 relief or political appointments when they return in September. But Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, suggested that law could be bent with sufficient political will. She pointed to Edwards’ inclusion of the tourism recovery fund in SB 704, an omnibus piece of recovery legislation.
“Unless the majority party is willing to suspend the rules, we can’t do it, but there is precedent for suspending the rules.” Van Duyn said. “I think the way they did it with the COVID-19 bill is an example.”
Edwards did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe. The remainder of the Buncombe delegation — Turner, Van Duyn and Democratic Rep. John Ager — said they would support the new occupancy tax split if it still had the backing of local officials and industry leaders.
Jim Muth, executive director of the Asheville Buncombe Hotel Association, which represents around 85 hotels in Buncombe County, says that while hotel owners still agree with the proposed occupancy tax changes, their main focus now is getting through the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Hotel occupancy has plummeted since March, leading to layoffs and other cost-saving measures as owners scramble to stabilize their businesses.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen with the coronavirus, with the federal [Paycheck Protection Program] renewal, unemployment. I think right now the hotels are trying to figure out how to bring back as many people as possible and how to train people on these new protocols,” he says. “I’m just trying to let things cool down for people in the hotel community before I bring them together and say, ‘Are we willing to go back again and do this?’”
The TDA’s Tourism Management and Investment Plan, which aimed to develop guidelines for investing hotel occupancy tax revenues over a 10-year period instead of the current application-based annual process, was also disrupted by COVID-19. The four-phase project was rolled out in February last year and included a study of the impacts of tourism within the community.
The initiative was originally set to conclude in April 2020 but has been sidelined because of the pandemic. Chris Cavanaugh, a former TDA board chair who’s filling in as the agency’s interim executive director, says that the final phase of the project is currently scheduled for presentation on Wednesday, Aug. 26. However, the organization may hold off on finalizing the results to focus on crisis response.
While these and other priorities, like attracting overnight visitors, remain intact, Cavanaugh says the agency is most focused on responding to the needs of business owners impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The agency has funded the installation of signs downtown to remind visitors of the statewide face covering mandate. “Wear the damn mask,” he declared during a July 29 meeting of the TDA board, as the most important message for tourists to the area.
Explore Asheville has even paused advertising through at least mid-August to wait for a decrease in COVID-19 cases in nearby tourism markets. According to a July 29 presentation by Marla Tambellini, the agency’s vice president of marketing, roughly 80% of potential visitors within a 6.5-hour driving radius of Asheville lived in counties considered hot spots for the disease as of July 27 — up from just 10% on June 8.
Meanwhile, hiring for the TDA’s new leader has already begun. Gary Froeba, managing director of the Omni Grove Park Inn and former TDA board chair, heads up a committee that will narrow the field of candidates.
The search committee consists of leaders in tourism-related businesses and current TDA board members, such as Jane Anderson, head of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association; Florida-based hotelier John McKibbon; and John Ellis, retired executive director of the Diana Wortham Theater. Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield and Buncombe County Commissioner Joe Belcher, who serve as nonvoting members on the tourism agency’s board, are also participating.
The TDA has contracted with SearchWide Global, a recruitment firm specializing in the travel, tourism and hospitality industries, to lead the process. The contract will cost $75,000 and will be paid out of the TDA’s fiscal year 2020-21 operating fund, which is alloted from the 75% of occupancy taxes designated for tourism advertising.
A job description from SearchWide touts Explore Asheville’s ability to draw millions of tourists each year, resulting in numerous “best of” nationwide travel and leisure lists and awards. The firm describes the ideal candidate as “approachable,” “authentic” and “community-minded,” with experience in destination marketing and managing multimillion-dollar budgets.
Initial responses indicate that there is “great interest” in the Explore Asheville position, says Froeba. The search firm was expected to review all applicants through the end of July and present 10 candidates for the committee to review. The team will then select three applicants for in-person interviews in early fall.
“I would estimate that we should have made a decision on our new president/CEO by mid- to late October, possibly sooner,” Froeba says.
‘An issue of trust’
Whoever occupies Brown’s corner office will have to reckon with a history of TDA criticism that began long before the coronavirus disrupted tourism and business in WNC. As earnings from Buncombe County’s hotel tax rose over her tenure from roughly $7.35 million in fiscal year 2012 to nearly $24.92 million in fiscal year 2019, the distribution of that revenue has been the subject of heated debate, with many locals saying that the millions of dollars used for tourism advertising should be redirected to area services.
In one recent public clash, activist and writer Ami Worthen published a Nov. 15 op-ed in the Citizen Times calling for the agency to be abolished. The letter prompted an impassioned response from Himanshu Karvir, the then-vice chair of the TDA board and CEO of Virtelle Hospitality, who lambasted Worthen’s words, as well as local news organizations and social media commenters critical of the agency. Karvir was unanimously appointed as the chair of the tourism board in June.
“It’s going to be a hard job,” says Muth, who is also participating in the CEO search committee. “They’re going to have to have thick skin, because I think that some of the stuff that comes across on social media about our organization, about our people and about us individually is pretty harsh.
“This should be the prime job in the country for somebody involved in tourism,” he continues. “But there are challenges. There are people who are upset because they feel like they haven’t had the opportunity to adequately participate in the benefits of [tourism].”
Brown did not tie her departure to that community criticism but did acknowledge that she was “excited to have some privacy” after a long stint in the public sector.
During a July 8 meeting, representatives from SearchWide mentioned the ability to “gain credibility and community buy-in from the broader population” as one the top five priorities for the TDA’s new leader. Kit Cramer, president and CEO of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and search committee member, said during the meeting that such a skill would address an “issue of trust” among the TDA and some members of the community.
“I think that trust has been broken on several occasions,” adds Andrew Celwyn, TDA board member and co-owner of Herbiary AVL, a retail shop in downtown. “It was broken the last time the occupancy tax was changed and the city and county were left out. It was broken when the TDA asked the community for their priorities during the TMIP process and then told the community that their top priority — affordable housing — wouldn’t be addressed.”
He says that for the agency to rebuild trust, it will need a CEO who can facilitate a discussion between the TDA board and the community on how occupancy tax funds are split and how they can be used.
“At the moment, we spend a lower percentage of the occupancy tax in our own community than any other TDA in North Carolina,” he says. “Until that changes, we won’t get any buy-in from the community.”