Now we know.
Nationally, one job in 10 is tourism-related. For our city as a whole, it’s one job in five. For some neighborhoods within the city, it’s one in three. Effectively, our local economy rests on two legs, property speculation and tourism.
We know that these tourism-related jobs pay very badly. We can see in the Census Bureau’s data (American Community 5-year Survey tables DP03, DP04) that Asheville neighborhoods with more tourism-related jobs have more households struggling to pay rent. Combining their data with that from the Department of Housing and Urban Development shows us that while the (misnamed) area median income that we hear about all the time when it comes to affordable housing is $72,500 (HUD; 2020 Income Limits Summary, Asheville Metro Fair Markets Rent area), the actual household median income for the neighborhoods most dependent on tourism (Emma, South French Broad and Five Points) is more like $27,500. In other words, for those neighborhoods, half the jobs pay less than the city’s “living wage.”
And now we see that those jobs can disappear in the blink of an eye. Of the 510,000 hospitality industry jobs in North Carolina (Bureau of Labor Statistics, state and area employment, hours and earnings, February 2020), 370,000 — nearly 75% — have disappeared in a couple of weeks. While detailed numbers for the city will take a long time to appear, it is most unlikely that neighborhoods that are three times more exposed to these jobs have fared better than the state overall.
There is no time left for debate — our local hospitality industry has shown itself to have the morals of a West Virginia strip miner. Whatever soothing arguments they may try on us in the future, their actions over the last days will be there to remind us what they are really about. Tourism must shrink as a proportion of our local economy.
We have to start building the foundation on which a new, less tourist-dependent Asheville can thrive. Some of those actions will be grand, expensive strategies. Others will be neighborhood — or even family-sized. For example, if your kids are struggling with math at school, learn the elementary/middle/high school math yourself. Then, when they are stuck on a problem, you can give them the support they need, rather than try to hide your math phobia. And when they graduate, they will be that much readier for jobs in the new economy. Most importantly, by not becoming fodder for the hospitality industry, they will help increase the earnings of those left behind.
— Geoff Kemmish