Was U.S. Open cash drop the best use of tax dollars?

Bill Branyon


What do J.P. Morgan, IBM and Moderna have in common with Asheville? They all ponied up big bucks to shine on the electronic signs that skirted center court at this year’s U.S. Open. The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority paid $1.3 million, plus $70,000 in related expenses, in hopes the TV cameras would land on its “Asheville” logo during the 168 hours of ESPN coverage. This was coverage that included shots of the valiant swan-song loss of Serena Williams, the women’s champion Iga Świątek’s forehand topspin rates that rivaled the wicked slashes of Rafael Nadal, and the power and speed of the 19-year-old men’s champion, the ebullient Birdman of Alcaraz.

The money also bought a “luxury suite” for two sessions, according to Sally Kestin of Asheville Watchdog. The final result was an advertising bonanza with up to 23,859 live spectators seeing the word “Asheville” all tournament long and an average of about 1.21 million theoretically seeing it on ESPN’s two channels for each TV segment, according to sportsmediawatch.com.

In reality, the word “Asheville” appeared only on the sides of the court, though the cameras are mostly aimed at the end of the court, where the logos of the big hitters J.P. Morgan, Chase, IBM, Emirates and Rolex resided. When you did get a passing glimpse, it was still surreal to see our city’s name next to IHG Hotels & Resorts, Chubb, Moderna, Cadillac and Deloitte. It also made you wonder if most of the viewers knew that Asheville is a tourist destination city in North Carolina? Or did they see it as just another small city with a big, immensely expensive inferiority complex? Maybe if the ad were “Asheville.com,” then viewers could have found out what it meant?

Alternatively, the font used for the Asheville ad is a rollicking, playful one as opposed to the competing, all-business fonts of say, Emirates airlines or Chase. Maybe if the viewers knew that the font reflects Asheville’s motto — once a TDA ad slogan — of “Any way you like it,” they’d be more interested?

Lobbing over the homeless crisis

We can at least presume that those lucky enough to catch the Asheville name and informed enough to recognize it are fans of tennis. If it entices them to book some hotel rooms in Asheville, they might want to play tennis here. And, as most of the major tennis centers — the Omni Grove Park Inn, the two Asheville Racquet Club locations and the Asheville and Biltmore Forest country clubs — are private, they might be forced to consider the open-to-the-public, city of Asheville-owned Aston Park Tennis Center to really get involved in the local tennis community.

Be aware, theoretical tennis tourists, earlier this year, Aston Park conditions were a lot different from the supersecure ones at the U.S. Open. Aston is wonderfully run and maintained, and the home of the Asheville Open, one of the most prestigious and player-friendly tournaments in the Southeast. But, at least until recently, Aston also harbored homeless people sleeping on benches next to the courts and trying to use clubhouse bathrooms in hopes of a shower, ablutions or, as I heard from regulars and staffers, for shooting up illegal drugs.

From my experience as a frequent and very satisfied Aston tennis player, the homeless were usually asleep or polite, but I’ve seen brave Aston employees diplomatically handle a number of tense situations. And of course, Aston Park also was the site of a homeless encampment last winter in which 16 people were arrested for “felony littering.” Or was it for too obviously and compassionately helping the homeless?

If these theoretical tourists for some reason don’t go to Aston Park, they’ll almost certainly go downtown and see the homeless crowding Pritchard Park and begging, sleeping, partying or suffering on almost every downtown sidewalk. Joel Burgess, in an interesting article in the Asheville Citizen Times, interviewed longtime resident and downtown worker Beth Underwood. She believed that tourists will tell their friends that “literally every [downtown] corner smells like a port-a-potty and every doorway is filled with garbage and people.”

Underwood concluded that tax dollars should first be used to address some of the area’s most serious issues, including housing for the homeless and for service workers struggling to afford rent.

Recent state legislation reduced the amount of TDA occupancy taxes that must be spent on tourism advertising from 75% to 66%. The remainder still must, by state law, go to “projects meant to increase tourism but [that] can also have public benefits such as greenways and sports fields,” stated the Citizen Times article.

Double-faulting Asheville’s leaders

You’d think Asheville and Buncombe County could afford to rectify Underwood’s criticisms. We’re rolling in public dough! The $1.3 million for the Asheville advertising is just a small part of the TDA’s immense budget of $46 million for just this year, paid for by taxes collected from Buncombe County lodging properties. The Asheville city budget is currently $217 million, and the county budget is about $574 million, paid for by our tax dollars. Thus, the TDA controls the equivalent of about a fifth of the money of the entire city budget of Asheville, a huge amount that has to be spent according to state law.

Thus, isn’t it obvious that, at least for the foreseeable future, most of the TDA money should be spent as Underwood suggested, on programs trying to solve the homeless crisis? Forty-six million dollars would buy 460 tiny houses at a cost of $100,000 per house, which would go a long way toward housing our estimated 637 homeless residents. Our goal should be maximized compassion for the homeless and maximized safety for neighborhoods and businesses, as well as that great phrase and reality: permanently supportive housing for the houseless. The state’s mandates could be met by redefining such expenditures as “advertising” and “public benefit,” since otherwise, word may spread that Asheville isn’t safe, and our tourist economy will be at risk. Not to mention it’s the humane and logical thing to do.

This is also the fault of our city and county representatives. They appointed eight of the nine members of the TDA board, and the TDA board appointed Vic Isley as president and CEO of Explore Asheville, which develops and carries out advertising, marketing and associated tourism promotion plans. The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners recently agreed to put a $40 million affordable housing bond referendum to voters, but that’s small potatoes compared to the $46 million or more that the TDA will likely generate every year for the foreseeable future. Instead, our leaders are allowing dubious choices like spending $1.3 million on vague ads and luxury VIP suites in New York City, while Asheville’s homeless situation is ever more disturbing. If they haven’t noticed, Asheville is growing desperate homelessness as fast as we’re growing expensive hotels.

On the other hand, as a dedicated tennis fan, I find seeing Asheville among the corporate overlords of the world economy to be great ironic fun. It’s as if we’re yelling a primal scream to all the world’s tony tennis teams: “We’re here, we’re ‘any way you like it,’ and we’re as tough as any global, corporate juggernaut striving to maximize profits no matter what the human and ecological costs.”

Bill Branyon is a freelance historian whose latest book is Advanced Romance: Liberation From 16 Romantic Rules to Vastly Enhance Your Chances for Life-Changing Love.

Editor’s note: This commentary has been updated from the print version.


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3 thoughts on “Was U.S. Open cash drop the best use of tax dollars?

  1. Voirdire

    The amount of money that the TDA brings in per year (..46 million and counting) is an immense slush fund that no one controls thanks to the state law that created the TDA “entity” …and therein lies the problem. That, and the city/county could sorely use these lodging tax generated funds elsewhere. My suggestion, abolish the Asheville TDA… shocking I know.

    • Taxpayer

      The TDA could effectively be abolished by lowering the occupancy tax rate from 6% to 0. Buncombe County has the authority to do it. Why don’t they?

  2. SpareChange

    The writer suggests that City and County officials are “at fault,” and should be able to shape TDA decision making because they appoint 8 of the 9 voting members of this all volunteer board. While it is true that the City Council and County Commission make those appointments, what is not mentioned is that state law establishes with great specificity who these 9 members must be and what interests they must represent. Specifically:

    “Six (6) owners or operators of hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, or vacation rental management companies, four of which own or operate hotels, motels, or bed and breakfasts, with more than 100 rental units, two of whom shall be appointed by the Asheville City Council and two by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners; and one of which owns or operates hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, or vacation rental management companies, with 100 or fewer rental units, who shall be appointed by the Asheville City Council; and one of which owns or operates hotels, motels, or bed and breakfasts with 100 or fewer rental units, who shall be appointed by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.
    Three (3) individuals actively involved in the tourist business who have participated in tourism promotion, appointed as follows:
    One (1) vacation rental owner or vacation rental management company owner appointed by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners;
    One (1) executive from a ticketed tourist attraction appointed by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce; and
    One (1) restaurant owner, owner of a brewery, distillery, or winery open for tours or tastings, or executive director of a ticketed arts organization appointed by the Asheville City Council.”

    In short, these are pro forma appointments made by the City and County, and there is virtually no opportunity to have much, if any, real impact on TDA decision making through them.

    Such an arrangement would be similar to one where the state might create a body which was to be responsible for the regulation of firearms, but then went on to specify that all of its members be board members of the National Rifle Association, and/or be owners of large gun shops.

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