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.