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Wednesday, 07 September 2016 14:33

Great outdoors rakes in tourism dough for Macon

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As outdoor recreation tourism continues to climb upward in Macon County, community stakeholders are trying to do a better job of tracking their visitor feedback and providing better services. 

According to the state’s annual report, visitor spending in Macon County increased from $148 million in 2014 to $154 million in 2015. A growing number of tourists are coming to Macon County to enjoy the great outdoors opportunities available. Whether they’re coming to bike, hike, kayak, raft or fish, the financial impact has been huge. 

Franklin’s Appalachian Trail Community Council was formed about five years ago when the town became designated through the Appalachian Trail Conservancy as an AT town for thru-hikers. The committee usually conducts a survey during the hiker season from April through the summer, but some adjustments to the survey this year combined with a larger sample resulted in more useful feedback.

“We really made a concentrated effort to do it right this year and cast the biggest net possible,” said FATCC co-chairman Matt Bateman. “We set some new parameters to learn where we need to improve as a community because I would like for thru-hikers to consider Franklin first instead of Hiawassee and other trail towns.”

The committee was able to survey more than 500 hikers as they came into town to refuel, restock and rest. The survey was able to gauge what services people used in town, what services they would like to have and even how much money hikers spent while in town. Results showed that 94 percent of respondents used Franklin lodging, 84 percent used local restaurants, 67 percent shopped at local outfitter shops and 57 percent used public laundry facilities. 

When asked if they would consider Franklin as a future vacation destination, 78 percent of hikers said yes. More than half of the 500 hikers surveyed gave details about how much money they had spent in town. Bateman said it’s a great indicator of the financial impact hikers have on the tourism economy. According to results, hikers spent an average of $77 each at local outfitters for a total of $20,500. Hikers spent an average of $44 each getting other supplies in town and spent an average of $35 at local restaurants. Those surveyed spent a total of $70,500 in Franklin.

“The results show me that hikers and outdoor recreation are making a significant impact on our economy,” Bateman said. 

Franklin also had the advantage of being named the “2015 Top Small Town” in Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine last November. Bateman and other committee members were determined to keep the momentum going for Franklin long after the magazine article was published. With the help of the community, a “Top Small Town” banner was made to tout the new title. It traveled to local businesses and scenic areas on the county for photos that were promoted through social media.

While the FATCC doesn’t have any say over how the county and town spend sales tax and occupancy tax revenue, members hope the survey results can give decision makers a better understanding of what’s working, what can be improved and what tourists think of Franklin in particular.

“We plan on taking data to county and town leaders because they should be aware of it so they can make informed decisions on tourism spending,” Bateman said. “Whether they realize it or not, tourism is the backbone of our economy.”

Comments from hikers are reassuring that tourism leaders are heading in the right direction. Most people spoke fondly about Franklin, its hospitable people and its accommodations for hikers. 

“This town is perfect. Don’t change a thing,” one hiker commented. 

“Very nice town with lots of stores. Found everything I needed,” another wrote.

When asked if they’d come back to Franklin for a vacation, most people said they would come as a needed mountain escape from the city. Respondents said they’d definitely come for a couple of days but said they didn’t know what they would do for an entire week. 

“This is a cute town with friendly people. I think I would get bored after two days,” one hiker wrote. “Maybe someone older would like to get away and relax here because Franklin is a small town community and if it became a vacation destination it would lose its charm.”

Bateman said the positive comments are always encouraging, but it’s the comments about improvement that are most valuable to the committee. Respondents said they’d like to see improved sidewalks, better public transportation, wireless internet, and more shops staying open late during the week and open on Sundays. 

“Most people surveyed were pretty happy with what we offer,” he said. “But we want to see which services need to be monitored — like making our partnership with the Macon County Transit better. How can we inform our hikers as far as way finding and having better signage? Things like that fall through the cracks.” 

Bateman also said Macon County could benefit from having one cohesive tourism marketing effort like other counties have. Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties all have a countywide Tourism Development Authority that decides how the occupancy tax money is spent on promotions and events for specific areas of the county. Haywood County TDA then has subcommittees that make recommendations for funding requests specific to their zip code. 

In 2014-15, Macon County collected just under $640,000 in occupancy taxes. Macon County’s occupancy tax receipts are divided into three sections — Franklin, Nantahala and Highlands — and several different entities manage the funding. The Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce has the Tourism Development Council and Highlands also has a TDC board. The town of Franklin has its own TDA board and levies its own 3 percent room tax.

Linda Harbuck, executive director of the Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce — which collects room tax from the town of Franklin and those establishments not in Highlands and Nantahala —  said Franklin’s TDC collections for 2015 were up 7 percent over 2014 and collections from the first half of 2016 show a 14 percent growth over 2015. 

Once figures for July and August start rolling in, that percentage will likely increase even more. She attributes the growth to the diverse tourism economy available in Franklin and throughout Macon County. 

“Outdoor activities — hiking, fishing, waterfalls, gem mining and natural beauty — along with special events and renowned performances at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts are all factors that drive visitation to Franklin,” Harbuck said. “Of course all those factors also drive visitation in all of Macon County. Nantahala Lake and the extraordinary rentals located in the Nantahala community are attracting large numbers of visitors to Macon County.”

Room tax revenue for Franklin TDA is also on the rise. The town collected just under $100,000 during the 2013-14 fiscal year and has seen steady growth since then. Revenue for 2014-15 was about $106,000 and collections for 2015-16 surpassed $117,000.

“Increased tourism overnight stays in Franklin cannot be attributed to one single factor. Instead a multitude of factors could be contributing to increased overnight stays in Franklin,” said Summer Woodward, Franklin’s town manager who also serves on the TDA board. “There have been numerous festivals, events, new and existing businesses to shop and dine at and of course the adventures of the outdoors are all possible contributors to overnight stays in Franklin.”  

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