The Haywood County Tourism Authority is exploring whether to close its two visitor centers in Waynesville and Maggie Valley, questioning whether money to run the sites could be better spent luring tourists in the first place rather than itinerary planning once they arrive.
A cross-section of Haywood County business leaders took over the reins of economic development this month, with county government passing the torch to the Greater Haywood County Chamber of Commerce to blaze a new path of economic prosperity.
A plan to move the Haywood County Economic Development Commission under the umbrella of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce is moving forward.
Haywood leaders are no strangers to overhauling their economic development strategy and structure.
A major transformation played out just 10 years ago. When the dust settled on the politically charged process, the economic development director resigned.
An exploratory committee of Haywood County business leaders will examine in the coming months whether to reshuffle the county’s economic development arm for the second time in a decade.
The Haywood County Chamber of Commerce debuted a new logo this week, showing off more than a year of work to craft a design that represents the business organization’s role in the county.
Don’t expect business as usual at the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce as a new director takes over for the first time in more than 20 years.
The business organization became embroiled in controversy last year amid questions about whether the agency was effectively promoting the region and spending tourism tax dollars wisely. Shortly thereafter, the chamber’s longtime director, Sue Bumgarner, announced her retirement.
The state is forcing Jackson County’s hand when it comes to forming a single entity to oversee how tourism tax dollars are spent.
Jackson County has two tourism agencies — one representing the Cashiers area and one for Jackson County as a whole — that oversee room tax money collected by the lodging industry. Whether to merge the two into a single countywide entity has been a source of controversy since last year, prompting the formation of a task force to study the issue.
That may be for naught, however, since the county recently learned its current structure is out of compliance with state law.
It seems the county inadvertently triggered the mandate when it sought an increase in its room tax rate from 3 to 6 percent last year. Doing so required a special bill in the General Assembly. That same bill also required Jackson County to form a single tourism development authority.
While the county has held off on enacting the room tax hike, the county nonetheless was obliged to follow through on changing the structure of its tourism boards, according to County Attorney Jay Coward.
Cashiers tourism leaders have resisted attempts to do away with their separate tourism arm, which gets 75 percent of the room tax generated in the Cashiers area to spend on its own marketing. They argue that Cashiers needs its own tourism agency — with its own funding stream — to cater to its own unique visitor demographic apart from the county as a whole.
Those who supported a merger believe it would be more effective, eliminating the duplication and competition that currently exists between the two entities and putting the money to wiser use under a single tourism strategy.
It would seem the argument is now moot.
County Commissioner Mark Jones, who represents the Cashiers area and voted against the original proposal, said he does not believe the community will resist a unified Tourism Development Authority after all.
“But it’s going to depend on what the state recommends and what the makeup would be,” Jones said. “(There must be) a fair representation from all over the county.”
A county-appointed advisory group made up primarily of lodging owners has been meeting every two weeks to discuss this very issue. Jones said they are within two meetings or so of returning to commissioners with recommendations about the formation of a new group.
“There’s no template,” Jones said about statewide tourism efforts. “We thought we’d find something out there to serve as a good template to guide us, but it’s not out there.”
Instead, Jones said, each county in North Carolina more or less creates how to best manage tourism-generated tax dollars.
That is precisely why the legislation triggered the formation of a new unified tourism board: the state has sought uniformity in how tourism boards operate, a requirement that is imposed whenever counties come to the state seeking a tax increase.
“I hope you don’t mind some friendly constructive criticism of the bill,” Coward wrote Trina Griffin this week, a staff attorney for the N.C. General Assembly. “I understand that the plan is to legislate on a case-by-case basis a consistent statewide system of tourism promotion. The obvious suggestion for a change to save other counties and towns from being confused by future bills would be to pass one statewide law.”
Coward, as of late Tuesday, had not received a reply from the state.
David Huskins, who heads a consulting group that is helping Jackson County develop an economic development plan and who’s worked with them on this issue, said there’s no question Jackson County must put a single tourism development authority in place.
Huskins said Asheville and Buncombe County were the first in the state to seek occupancy tax legislation from the state. By the mid 1980s, the trend of enacting a room tax had pushed into the western end of North Carolina. But oversight in some cases was loose because of the varying structures of different tourism boards overseeing the money that was raised.
“Over the years, some of the local governments were diverting funds outside of tourism – the tax was originally conceived for tourism promotion and marketing. But, a lot of local governments were saying if they needed a new ambulance, well tourists get hurt, too, and we have to provide services for them,” Huskins said.
That interpretation diluted the intent of the room tax — namely to provide a stream of revenue to further tourism — and created such an outcry from the tourism industry, the General Assembly by the mid 1990s moved to set up uniform guidelines.
“If you want an increase, you come under the new guidelines,” Huskins said flatly.
Commissioners did not decide on when exactly to form their new tourism development authority. Chairman Jack Debnam indicated a required public hearing could be held as soon as the April 16 meeting. The advisory committee meets this Thursday. Coward is expected to detail more of his findings regarding the state legislation.
After several years without a full-time promoter, the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce plans to bring back an executive director to help the valley rebound from a recession fraught with business closures.
“We need that presence,” said Teresa Smith, president of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce. “There has been a little bit of a loss with not having someone work there full-time.”
Four years ago, former chamber director Lynn Collins left to become the executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority. After her departure, the Maggie Valley chamber chose to save money by not hiring a replacement.
“We decided to try to act without an executive director to try to put some money in the bank,” Smith said.
Instead, Smith took on some of the directorial duties until the chamber finances turned around.
“We are operating now on a positive note,” Smith said.
The chamber will not have to foot the entire salary for the new director on its own, however. The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority last month approved a $15,000 allocation to the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce to cover part of the new director’s salary.
The committee charged with filling the director position has not yet decided on a salary for the position, said Jan Pressley, head of the search committee. The remainder of the salary cost will come out of the chamber’s general budget.
The Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce has a $150,000 budget this year — a sharp decline from the $300,000 budget it had in 2007. The decrease is due in part to a drop in chamber membership among businesses.
This year, the chamber has about 170 members, down from 220 members five years ago. The decline in membership is due largely to the economy.
“A lot of the businesses have gone out of business,” said Jena Sowers, the visitor’s center manager for the Maggie Valley Chamber.
Restaurants, attractions and performance venues have closed their doors. And, of course, a large number of Realtors and contractors have left the housing trade, Sowers said.
“It was sad because when we would get the letters from them dropping out, they said if they ever go back in business they would rejoin,” Sowers said.
The loss of members made it difficult to afford the executive director salary — even though the recession was perhaps the time when the business community in Maggie needed a full-time leader the most.
The chamber has also been hurting from a loss of funding from the tourism authority, which it once relied on heavily.
The tourism authority subsidized basic operations and overhead of the chamber and visitor center to the tune of $64,000 a year, compared to only $29,000 a year now.
That number is inching back up with the recently-approved $15,000 earmark from the tourism authority to help cover the director’s salary. The funding will come out of a special pot of room tax dollars designated for tourism promotion in Maggie Valley.
The chamber has received seven applications for the executive director position, and the search committee expects to hire someone in January.
The director will oversee marketing, the daily business of the visitor’s center, work with other entities, including town officials and the lodging association, and be present at various meetings.
Because she also runs the Maggie Valley Inn and Conference Center, Smith could only devote some of her time to the chamber whereas a full-time director can focus all of his or her energy on the job.
“I think the biggest obstacle that I had was being able to be in attendance at a lot of meetings,” Smith said. “I think that just having that presence out there … will be an advantage.”
Like many small towns in the U.S., Maggie Valley has battled business closures, high unemployment and low economic growth during the past several years.
Businesses closed, leaving fewer chamber members and less dues money, which in turn prevented the chamber from hiring a director to help fix those very issues.
The lack of a chamber director also forced the town to pick up some of the slack by hiring a festival coordinator to continue to bring events to Maggie Valley.
Chamber of Commerce members seem to agree that a full-time director could only help Maggie Valley.
“It can’t hurt,” said Dan Mitchell, owner of Laurel Park Inn.
During the past several years, with the closure of the amusement park Ghost Town in the Sky and Soco Gardens Zoo, Maggie Valley has “sort of died,” Mitchell said.
Laurel Park Inn usually closes during the winter but will remain open after a bad business year, he said.
It will take collaboration between business owners to revive Maggie Valley, Mitchell said.
“When you bring (a customer) in, you’re helping the valley,” he said.
Because her business Nutmeg Bakery is relatively new to the area, Brenda Schwartz said she is not sure what the chamber has done in the past but wants to see Maggie Valley expand beyond motorcycle rallies.
“I’d like to see more business development,” Schwartz said. “It needs to be a diverse group.”
Since October last year, at least nine new businesses moved to Maggie Valley. Four qualify as bars. But the new ventures also included a hair salon, an antique shop and grocery store.
Brenda O’Keefe, owner of Joey’s Pancake House, has seen several directors come and go during her business’ more than 40 years.
“I do think we need a director,” O’Keefe said. “I would want them to be out in the community.”
The director should be a regular face around town and in businesses, especially those that are currently struggling, and should hold marketing seminars for its members, she said. Maggie Valley businesses need to work on cultivating a repeat customer base — something that has helped her business through slow times.
“Give people what they want, and they will come,” she said.
The director should also reach out to businesses that are not chamber members, or rather possible future members, and paint a rosier picture of Maggie Valley’s future, O’Keefe said.
When having a conversation with Penny Morgan, you’ll hear a lot of phrases that aren’t often associated with business in Haywood County. “Military contracts” is probably the most notable. “Top secret” might be another.
Morgan owns a company called Aermor, and she just won $10,000 in the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce’s yearly Business Start-up Competition to get the tech company off the ground.
Technically, Aermor provides “network operations and cyber operations support” to its clients, but really, it’s hard to put definite borders around exactly what the company does; it’s nebulous, it changes with contract and client. But here’s an example:
Recently, Morgan and her team won a role as a subcontractor with the military as part of an effort to combat improvised explosive devices. That initiative is funded to the tune of $157 million, and Aermor will be using its tech skills to add context, data and expert information — gleaned from a variety of sources — to the military’s traditional intelligence-gathering techniques, providing research, training and analysis to military personnel trying to combat IEDs in the field.
It’ll bring a top-secret security clearance to the company’s Canton office, and probably several new, highly skilled employees who are paid with federal funds.
And this, said Morgan, is what she believes is the highlight of her business and what set her apart from other competitors in the start-up contest, which is put on annually by the chamber and attracts potential entrepreneurs from around the county to compete for the startup cash.
“Aermor is looking to bring in funds that do not already exist in Haywood County. We’re not looking for the same people that take their money to one place and turn around and spend it somewhere else,” said Morgan.
And that’s what seemed to put her over the top with the judges, too.
The competition is judged by a four-person panel of representatives from the economic development and financial sectors in the county.
Scott Connor, senior vice president and marketing executive for First Citizens Bank in Haywood County, said it was the genesis of completely new money that really impressed him.
“We felt that it would be bringing jobs and dollars to Haywood County that may not come here otherwise,” said Connor. “It would be monies that she wouldn’t be taking from a neighboring business.”
And among the other small business owners in the competition, Morgan’s proposition is truly unique. She currently has four full-time workers and around 11 part-time, and she hopes to grow that number as her contracts increase, bringing jobs to the county that are well above minimum wage or minimum skill level.
She realizes that this isn’t your average startup, and it’ll probably fly under the radar of most in the county. Her predecessors in the first-place spot have often been consumer services — a dance studio, a brewery, and other service outfits seeking Haywood customers. But Morgan sees that lack of local customers as one of her greatest assets.
“It’s a very different kind of concept,” said Morgan. “I’m not asking anyone in Haywood County to come and use my business. I’m growing the job force, growing the training, and not asking for any patronage,” she said.
Plus, she’s got the skills and knowledge to back it up, which also went a long way towards winning the hearts and dollars of the judges.
Morgan spent much of her career in the military, graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy and going on to spend 14 years as a surface warfare officer. She did overseas deployments, she taught military strategy and seamanship, she worked with anti-terrorism squads. Basically, she knows the military and its people. And since those are now her clients, that knowledge and those contacts are pieces of capital that are invaluable to her company’s success.
“Her background is a very impressive resume,” said Connor, a contest judge. “She already has, it seems, the skills abilities and contacts to make it successful.”
Chamber Director CeCe Hipps said that the type of novelty and sustainability Morgan seems to bring to the table is precisely what the competition, now in its sixth year, is all about.
Each entrant must submit a business plan, but winning is about more than just having an impressive plan.
“It’s not just a business plan, but it has also to do with the sustainability in the county, the number of jobs it will create and if there are any other businesses in the area already doing the same thing,” said Hipps.
Small businesses that can bring long-term jobs and a unique economic perspective will always be a boon to the county, which is why, said Hipps, the competition was born and continues to remain strong.
“Small businesses are what make up our economy, and more than half of the jobs in America either own or work for a small business, so there’s a big drive to promote small business. That’s what the chamber does,” said Hipps. “The reality is that small businesses are an integral component of our economic future.”
Now that she’s won the money, Morgan said she plans to build it back into the company’s infrastructure, upgrading equipment and training to ensure that Aermor can keep its niche in the county’s business community for years to come. Her roots, she said, are in Haywood County, and she intends for her business to put down strong, lasting roots here as well.
“I was born and raised in Bethel. I’m not an outsider coming in. I was born and raised in Haywood County and that’s where my heart and soul is and will always be,” said Morgan.
Her plan is ambitious — to be a 100-person, $26 million outfit in five years — but she believes it’s feasible, especially with the injection of cash, which, she said, was a welcome but unexpected surprise.
“I was shocked, but I think I can be a good steward of those funds,” said Morgan. “And hopefully next year I can be sponsoring the competition.”