Buncombe commissioners must rein in the TDA

Ben Williamson

BY BEN WILLIAMSON

The Buncombe County commissioners have a chance to make a huge difference in the lives of many local residents while addressing critical community needs.

Daniel Walton’s summary of the Tourism Development Authority’s March 25-26 retreat (“TDA Projects Roaring Year for Buncombe Visitation,” March 31, Xpress) made it painfully clear that the only way to rein in this broken entity is for the commissioners to use their power to repeal the occupancy tax that funds the authority’s efforts. This would put pressure on state lawmakers to rewrite the enabling legislation to allow the use of future occupancy tax receipts to meet pressing local needs.

Although both the TDA and Explore Asheville, which implements the authority’s strategies, have had their share of vocal critics for years, I’ve felt that abandoning the tax outright might be a step too far. There’s been no shortage of complaints about how these millions of dollars are spent on relentless marketing campaigns aimed at attracting still more tourists even as we struggle to manage current levels and to find the money to address more urgent concerns. Surely, I thought, this consistent, multiyear chorus of community pushback would eventually be heard.

That hasn’t happened — but then, why would it? The TDA’s board members are appointed, not elected, and thus aren’t accountable to voters. As hospitality professionals charged by law with boosting tourism in Asheville, they’re not about to ask for a reduction in their access to millions of marketing dollars that benefit their own bank accounts.

Just consider these statements from Walton’s report:

  • Unchecked growth. According to TDA board Chair Himanshu Karvir, scaling back tourism in Asheville is “not what we want to do: Our goal is to get more visitors here.” Vic Isley, Explore Asheville’s CEO, sounded a similar note, saying, “Our role is not constricting growth.” She’s right: Managing the many negative impacts of rampant growth is our elected leaders’ job.
  • Local input. “If we start a conversation with locals,” argued Karvir, “it would start by saying, ‘We’re already maxed out; let’s pull back.’” Countless surveys, listening sessions, op-eds, protests, forums and hotel moratoriums have depicted a city that’s weary of tourism’s negative impacts. Karvir clearly understands this: He just doesn’t agree.
  • Community disconnect. Consultant Rodney Payne asked the group to consider “How much is enough?” and “How many people is too many for our place?” Isley admitted that Payne was asked to take part in the retreat because of his “provocative” opinions. But is promoting sustainable growth really controversial? It seems more like conscious leadership to me, and not doing so is clearly reckless and irresponsible.

Walton wrote that the TDA wants to attract a more diverse range of tourists. But during a public forum I moderated a couple of years ago, Stephanie Brown, who was then Explore Asheville’s CEO, explained the total lack of people of color on her agency’s staff by saying they looked for “a certain skill set” in potential employees. This disturbing answer suggested an organization out of touch with and not representative of the community. Many months later and despite new leadership, the group’s website still shows no people of color on staff.

  • Resistance to funding community needs. To address homelessness, Isley first suggested using federal COVID funds, then proposed a new downtown tax. But why do we need to look elsewhere for money to address a problem that’s clearly associated with tourism? The massive influx of tourists strains our infrastructure and accelerates gentrification — which, in turn, reduces the supply of affordable housing. Why not simply revamp the occupancy tax in a way that would benefit the entire community?

Meanwhile, back in February, City Council unanimously approved asking state legislators to authorize a quarter-cent sales tax increase to support expanded public transit, another key local need that could help tourism industry employees get to work while freeing up city funds for other purposes. But this, too, would mean sticking locals with a higher tax bill to fund something that would be a better use of occupancy tax receipts than letting hoteliers continue to profit from a publicly funded, multimillion-dollar marketing campaign.

Addressing our essential needs would benefit all economic sectors, including tourism. But the commissioners must stop allowing economically stressed workers and families to subsidize this bloated, self-serving industry.

Repealing the occupancy tax and forgoing the more than $27 million it’s projected to bring in next year would take courage. Yet it’s precisely because the amount is so big that the commissioners have a chance to spark real change.

Let’s be clear: Turning off that money tap won’t signal the end of tourism here. Asheville is already firmly on the tourist map, and those businesses that most benefit from it have their own marketing budgets. But canceling the tax would at least send a strong signal to Raleigh that might get state lawmakers’ attention, while allowing for an authentic conversation about how future occupancy tax revenues should be allocated and what type of body should oversee those decisions.

Without bold action by the commissioners, the most we can hope for is a token bump in allocation percentages within the confines of the existing law. But the time has come for a fundamental overhaul, not a minor adjustment. Other cities have used their occupancy taxes to direct millions to infrastructure and social programs while still supporting vibrant tourism industries. Why can’t we?

COVID-19 has plainly underscored the tourism sector’s vulnerability, highlighting the need for greater focus on sustainable social and economic improvements that are more resistant to economic downturns. The TDA’s $5 million donation last year to address COVID-related job losses is commendable, but that money could have done so much more. Are advertisements really more important than helping those suffering from the pandemic’s fallout — particularly considering how many of them struggled due to the decline of the very tourism market the TDA promotes?

Isley’s $245,000 salary alone could potentially pay for a half-dozen school social workers or teacher assistants to address our opportunity gap. Which seems like a better use of those funds? Wouldn’t addressing homelessness and making improvements in affordable housing, public transit and education also benefit tourism? Wouldn’t a healthier, safer, more economically inclusive Asheville be a better place to visit? Why not use those moneys to help develop a workforce trained to pursue careers in trades, manufacturing and technology that offer full-time, living-wage jobs with benefits versus the part-time, below-living-wage, low- or no-benefit jobs often found in the tourism and hospitality industries? According to state and federal statistics, more than half of the 36,000-plus jobs lost in Asheville during April 2020 due to COVID were in those sectors. Why continue to spend this money promoting a fragile industry that, at its best, doesn’t give low- and middle-income workers the social mobility and opportunity that other professions can?

It’s time for the commissioners to cancel the occupancy tax and call for a rewrite of this legislation to better benefit most of the folks who live here. It’s time for county leaders to send a message that people and diversity are more important than profit for a few.

Let’s stand up for what’s left of our city’s character and make a difference in the lives of those pushed aside.

Ben Williamson is the interim executive director of Green Opportunities, an Asheville-based nonprofit.

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12 thoughts on “Buncombe commissioners must rein in the TDA

  1. Andrew Fletcher

    I loudly concur with everything in this piece and add this:
    1 Abolish the TDA.
    2. Tourism is now a mature industry. They can foot their own marketing budgets. They don’t need public money.
    3. Keep the occupancy tax for current underfunded local needs, ambitious 21st century infrastructure and only investing public money in economic development projects that actually pays ABOVE the median wage.

    • luther blissett

      The occupancy tax is legally tied to the TDA’s existence. Keeping the tax and not the TDA requires changes in state law. All changes in state law for Asheville and Buncombe have to go through Chuck Edwards, our colonial governor.

      That’s why Ben Williamson argues for zeroing out the occupancy tax rate and defunding the TDA: it is the only power placed in the hands of local elected officials. Doing so might make the current TDA board and Chuck Edwards more enthusiastic about doing something in Raleigh.

  2. Alan Hall

    As Ben points out, abandoning the tax and the TDA would be the best benefit for our economy. We need to tourists to pay their fair share for the infrastructure they use and support the larger needs of the community. The monies can be used for keeping the tourist going, but that should not the only focus. We can also support our smaller locally owned businesses, our homeless population, and many other local initiatives.

  3. luther blissett

    It’s important to join the dots from Daniel Walton’s report. The TDA is swimming in money because overnight visitation rates hardly fell despite a) a pandemic; b) pretty much no money spent on advertising. This tells you that the seven-figure sum spent on marketing every year is mostly burning money for the sake of it. The marginal value of every marketing dollar in attracting visitors is negligible.

    In short, last year proved that the TDA doesn’t really need occupancy tax money. Since the TDA is primarily a vehicle for spending that money, last year proved that it doesn’t really need to exist in its current form.

    I’d prefer a hard cap on TDA revenues with any excess returned to the county, and a change to the allocation of revenues. But all of those things require changes to state law.

    Eliminating or reducing the occupancy tax rate is a blunt instrument but it’s the only one in local hands. The county can decide an appropriate total budget for the TDA, adjust the rate accordingly, and the TDA can learn to live more frugally. Alternatively, the occupancy tax rate can be zeroed out and the TDA replaced by something more like the Charlotte RVA which is established under the city’s charter and has its board appointed by the city while functioning as an independent, legally-separate entity.

  4. NFB

    A few years ago there was a proposal to increase the room tax with the extra funds going to local infrastructure needs used by tourists. The TDA opposed it on the dubious grounds that the increase in room costs would mean tourists would go elsewhere, as if Gatlinburg and Myrtle Beach have the Biltmore House and downtown Asheville, and as if people plan their vacations on the cost of a room rather than find a room that fits in their budget.

    A year or two later, with the TDA in full panic mode that the huge increase in the number of hotel rooms was going to be difficult to fill it happily got approval of an increase in the room tax for more marketing. The bill to do so passed the legislature and then Buncombe County Commission approved the increase.

    So, County Commission could repeal to increase which would cut the amount of money going into the TDA’s slush fund. Cut it in half and let it serve as a shot across the bow to the TDA — start cooperating with the desire of locals to allow a portion of the room tax to go help locals pay for infrastructure that benefit tourists or the next vote will be to put an end to your fun altogether. The TDA’s complete unwillingness to to listen to the community has got to stop.

    • luther blissett

      I mention this all the time, but I crunched the numbers and the TDA’s current revenue projection is equivalent to the entire budgets of Black Mountain, Woodfin, and Weaverville: that is, enough money to fund all government services to a municipality of about 18,000 people.

      The TDA has broad discretion to decide what counts as “marketing,” It could have spent its marketing dollars last year in ways that directly benefitted the local community but chose instead to hoard that money. It is now aching to burn through its huge stash of cash on bad TV ads this summer that we now know won’t make a significant difference in tourism numbers.

      Combine the TDA’s decisions in 2020 with the tourism numbers in 2020 and it proves beyond doubt that the TDA is no longer necessary in its legally-defined form — as a vehicle to receive and spend occupancy tax revenues. Ironically, if the occupancy tax were zeroed out, it would make hotel/homeshare stays cheaper and more attractive to overnight visitors, but it would also save them a few more dollars to spend on things that the TDA doesn’t control.

    • luther blissett

      And to make clear, defunding the TDA wouldn’t require any changes in state law. The controlling statute says that the county “may levy” an occupancy tax, which means it can stop doing so whenever it chooses. Zeroing it out would still leave the TDA with millions in the bank, but it’d have to think harder about how that money should be spent.

  5. Voirdire

    The TDA once had a role in Asheville, now it’s nothing short of a metastasized cancer that serves no one but itself.. Ben has got it right.

  6. Cori

    As someone who grew up in Florida and moved to Asheville in 1997, I can say with confidence that sticking with the occupancy tax and the TDA as it stands will result in turning this place into Disneyland. And all ya’ll who dislike Floridians and talk smack about that state – hello? Unchecked tourism is what ruined Florida. And greed. And development. Get a grip Asheville. Reverse course.

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