A task force charged with creating guidelines for a joint Jackson County Tourism Development Authority is still struggling to figure out exactly how everything will work — and the deadline for making recommendations to the county leadership is drawing nearer.

Jackson County has two tourism agencies — one for the county as a whole and one for Cashiers — that oversee room tax money collected from overnight visitors by the lodging industry. Whether to merge the two entities has been a point of contention since last year.

A Haywood County Tourism Development Authority board member has resigned from her seat after disagreeing with the rest of the board’s decision to close a couple of its visitors centers.

Departing from the normal talks of budget cuts and tightening belts, Haywood County commissioners asked a group of tourism and town leaders how the county could pitch in to help bring visitors or new second-home owners to the county.

The commissioners met with members of the county tourism board and elected officials from Canton, Maggie Valley and Waynesville, among others, last week to discuss tourism and how the county can attract more residents or second-home owners.

“I would be interested in the county putting money into something,” said Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick. “How can the county help?”

One option Kirkpatrick offered up was commercial advertising. The county could look into a commercial that would collectively market Haywood County to people in other parts of the U.S.

“I would be interested in doing something like that if it’s in the best interest of everybody,” Kirkpatrick said.

“We would be interested in the county putting money into something too,” came the quick reply of Alice Aumen, a board member with the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

Aumen’s swift acquiescence to the county tossing in a few shekels drew chuckles from other leaders seated around the large square table.

The trick is getting people here, not so much selling them on the place — the area generally speaks for itself once people come to visit, several attendees stated.

“It all starts with a visit. It all starts with them being a tourist here,” said Lynn Collins, executive director of the TDA. Collins said that many retirees and second-home owners were initially tourists in the county before they were residents.

The meeting last week, billed as a roundtable discussion, was a chance for county commissioners to get up to speed on the tourism authority’s marketing campaign and strategy.

Jennifer Duerr, a member of the tourism board, suggested marketing Haywood County as centrally located between Gatlinburg and Asheville. People could stay in Haywood County and easily make daytrips to either location, she said.

Duerr also emphasized the county and towns should use more pictures and videos of the area. It is their best form of advertisement but often is under-utilized.

“It is so simple,” Duerr said. “This gorgeous area has been given to us like a gift, and we always walk away from that.”

The Tourism Development Authority recently purchased its own film equipment and has been shooting video to use in its advertising efforts.

As discussions dove deeper, several leaders noted that it is difficult to market “Haywood County” per se when few people know where it is or even that it exists. Out-of-town visitors are more likely to recognize Maggie Valley, many stated.

“Well, we are glad to let you use (the name) Maggie Valley,” half-joked Maggie Mayor Ron DeSimone.

Haywood County as a whole should build upon the efforts of places, such as Maggie Valley, Waynesville and Lake Junaluska, which have name recognition nationwide.

Ben Glover, owner of Maggie Mountain Rentals, said that he shied away from naming his business Haywood Mountain Rentals because he feared it would attract fewer customers.

“Haywood County, we were scared of and that is kind of sad,” Glover said.

Glover said a concerted effort may be able to change that.

“The term ‘Haywood County’ needs to be collectively promoted,” said Glover, a member of the TDA board.

Wintertime recreation was also a particular topic of concern at the meeting. Beyond Cataloochee Ski Area, the list of activities is meager.

“In the wintertime, we are truly at a loss for things to tell them to do,” Collins said. “We do have a shortage of things for children to do.”

Aumen agreed, adding that the county should focus on attracting entire families that can come back generation after generation.

County Commissioner Mike Sorrells suggested creating more indoor events to occupy people during the cold winter months and offering package deals for travelers.

Several leaders said that the towns are not adequately communicating what they have to offer to tourism leaders who tout the activities as reasons to visit Haywood County.

“I think that is everybody’s shortcoming,” said Canton Town Manager Al Matthews. “We can’t fault (tourism promoters) for not telling (visitors) about something that they don’t know exists.”

Visitors to Haywood County will have a fuller view of its mountain beauty this year after a locally funded project left some of the Blue Ridge Parkway vistas a bit barer.

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority and Maggie Valley Lodging Association earmarked $19,500 to clear a portion of the county’s 73 vistas along the parkway. This is the first year that the tourism agency has taken it upon itself to help preserve the panoramic overlooks that permeate Haywood County.

“The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of our treasures, our jewels,” said Susan Knapko, a member of the tourism board. “Grab you kids, your husband, a picnic, and come look at this.”

The TDA hired three workers, or fallers, in February to begin scaling back the overgrown trees enshrouding some of the county’s most popular and majestic views.

“This is our backyard right here,” said Joanne Martin of the Maggie Valley Lodging Association. “We felt it was a very wise investment.”

The association often directs visitors — a number of whom are motorcycle enthusiasts — to the parkway and its breathtaking views. Without the fallers, trees would shield those views.

While overlooks were a hallmark of the parkway when it was constructed, views have been obscured in the intervening the decades. The parkway hasn’t have enough money to properly clearing them every year, prompting action by the Haywood County tourism agency to take matters into its own hands.

Haywood County is home to more 6,000-foot peaks than anywhere else on the Eastern seaboard. Its section of the Blue Ridge Parkway is likewise the highest elevation stretch of the 469-mile scenic journey from Shenandoah in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains.

As of April 2, the trio had cleared 23 vistas in Haywood County and hoped to clear at least a few more by the end of the week, when their contract with the county expires and their work for the Blue Ridge Parkway starts.

“It’s really a good investment by the community helping us keep our views cleared,” said Phil Francis, superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway. “People come to the parkway over and over, and they notice the difference.”

Francis added that he hears complaints about the overgrown trees that crop up and inhibit visitors’ ability to enjoy particular sights.

“As the parkway has gotten older and the trees have gotten taller, it has been a challenge to keep up with maintaining those views,” Francis said. “The plant material grows up too fast.”

The parkway has launched a campaign of its own to clear overlooks on a more regular schedule.

“Every three years is not what we would prefer. It’s what we can afford,” Francis said.

The three fallers will join the parkway’s payroll next Monday and continue clearing vistas throughout Western North Carolina until late September.

The Haywood County TDA money “allowed us to get a head start,” said Chris Ulrey, one of the fallers.

The Blue Ridge Parkway also contracts seven other people to clear some of the roads more than 100 vistas in North Carolina. The contract is $235,000.

 

A light touch

Clearing clutter from the vistas’ views is not as simple as it may sound. Workers must be deliberate in which trees to cut down and consider the wildlife that lives in the forest surrounding the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The fallers must first survey each vista and see which trees they should cut and which they should prune. They descend the steep slopes down from the overlooks and use chain saws to either trim limbs or hew a tree. If possible, the workers get the tree to fall downhill. The trees then become home to some forest critters and deposit nutrients in the ground as they decay.

While workers used to clear all the trees blocking people’s view, fallers now leave a tree or two here and there for the Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel, an animal found only in the Southern Appalachians. The squirrel travels by gliding from tree to tree so workers now leave some still standing to preserve the species’ habitat.

Although the workers will conclude their stint for Haywood County Friday, some earmarked funds remain unused. It is unknown how much of the $19,500 was spent, said Lynn Collins, executive director of the TDA. But, the leftover money will allow the TDA to rehire the three fallers to trim and cut down trees for a few weeks in October before the weather typically becomes too harsh, she said.

The TDA board debated whether it would be a good idea to keep the fallers working into October, a high point in the tourist season. However, members decided that visitors would likely enjoy seeing a picturesque view open up before them as the workers lop down trees.

“It is so exciting to actually watch these guys go down the mountain sides with chain saws,” Knapko said. “The crew themselves have been so thrilled.”

The tourism board plans to continue the vista project after this year. At a recent meeting, board members discussed finding donors to sponsor the work and possibly allocating a set amount of tourism dollars to the project each year.

Businesses skirting Haywood County’s room tax laws should pay up or they could soon find themselves slapped with a lawsuit.

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority plans to sue six accommodation owners who have repeatedly and openly neglected to pay the county’s 4 percent tax on overnight lodging, announced Executive Director Lynn Collins at the tourism board’s meeting last week.

“That will set an example,” Collins said. “Let them know that we actually are serious about it.”

Some businesses owe more than three years worth of room taxes, Collins said, and some have openly stated their defiance of the law.

Collins added that she sees places that are not paying the lodging tax with vacancy signs welcoming people. They are clearly doing business but either haven’t been charging the tax in the first place or have been pocketing it instead of remitting it to the county.

The tax is supposed to be tacked on to a tourist’s bill when they stay in a hotel, bed and breakfast or vacation home rental. Lodging owners then remit the tax they collect to the county on a monthly basis.

The tourism agency has not yet chosen which six taxpayers, or rather non-taxpayers, it will sue. But, Collins said it will go after “the most blatantly delinquent” properties.

“(Taking legal action) is the only thing you can do now,” said Al Matthews, Canton town manager and a member of the tourism board.

However, the board will continue to look for ways, such as changing legislation that would give them the authority to impose further sanctions, to bring more people into compliance. Currently, the authority has few options for punishing delinquent lodgers beyond lawsuits and liens.

For years, the tourism authority board has struggled with ways to bring accommodation owners into compliance. Each meeting, the board is presented with an list of people who owe overdue taxes.

“Every month we look at these penalties, and it’s the same people time after time after time,” said Marion Hamel, a tourism board member from Maggie Valley.

The revenue from the room tax is used to promote tourism in Haywood County.

In September, the tourism agency collected more than $96,000 from its 4 percent occupancy taxes — about $8,000 more than its estimated revenue for that month.

The increase is a vast improvement compared to August, when the actual amount of taxes collected came in 20 percent under the TDA’s year-to-date projections. The agency estimates it will bring in a little more than $863,000 this fiscal year.

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority board backed down from plans to cut grant funding for long-celebrated events such as Folkmoot USA, Downtown Waynesville street dances and Canton’s Labor Day Festival.

The tourism board had been contemplating new grant guidelines for events — cutting off grant funding after four years and capping one-day events to a maximum grant of $1,500. But they reversed course following backlash from event organizers over the proposed changes.

Not all tourism board members wanted the changes in the first place. Mark Clasby, executive director of the county’s Economic Development Commission and a board member, was among those on the tourism board who raised concerns about the repercussions of cutting funding for existing festivals.

The intent was to free up grant money to boost new, up-and-coming festivals. The watered-down guidelines encourage rather than mandate that “new, qualified events” are given priority status.

Established festivals already have strong sponsorships and attendance, and after receiving TDA money for four years, new events should be better able to support themselves, said Marion Hamel, a member of the board from Maggie Valley.

“We didn’t feel like it would be that big of a hardship,” said Hamel, who helped draft the proposed guidelines.

Hamel said four years of grant funding should be adequate.

“It is going to take three years for any new event to get off the ground,” Hamel said.

But, just because an event is longstanding does not mean it’s profitable or no longer needs grant support. The town of Canton doles out $20,000 for music, portable toilets, stages, tents, clean-up crews and law enforcement at its annual Labor Day Festival.

“Ours is a little over a 100 years now. We are going to get it right,” joked Al Matthews, Canton town manager and a board member.

Many of these events depend on TDA funding to help broaden their promotional efforts beyond Western North Carolina. Organizers said they would not be able to continue attracting larger crowds to the popular annual events without the funding, and the loss could force some perennial favorites to shut down.

“You don’t want to penalize somebody who is successful,” said Kay Miller, executive director of the Haywood County Arts Council, who attended the meeting. Miller said International Festival Day would never be able to advertise in publications, such as Southern Living, if it did not receive TDA money.

Most events are run by nonprofits, which are only allowed to keep a certain amount of money in the bank. Any monies left over go back into the nonprofit or are used to promote the event the following year.

“This would be very devastating to some of us,” said Deborah Reed, a member of the tourism board. Reed is also leader within the Canton merchant’s association FOCUS, a nonprofit that puts on the annual Mater Fest.

Board members agreed that new events should be given a chance but disagreed over whether older events should be excluded from the TDA’s funding pool.

“You don’t want to create funding dependent organizations,” agreed Matthews, who also suggested cutting out the proposed guidelines how much money older events can receive.

About $215,000 of the tourism agency’s funds — a quarter of what is collected from the county’s 4 percent tax on overnight lodging — are earmarked this year for special tourism initiatives. The TDA collects more than $850,000 in revenue each year from the county’s 4-percent lodging tax.

Maggie Valley, Canton, Waynesville, Lake Junaluska and Clyde each keep a portion of the tax revenue they generate. The five areas also have their own committee, which divvies up their share of the tourism agency’s funds.

Ken Stahl, the tourism board’s finance chair, said the committees need to try to achieve a balance between giving new events an opportunity to flourish and supporting the events the county is already known for.

“Our prime directive is to get an increase in tourism,” Stahl said.

Each year, the committees sift through applications and make recommendations to the tourism authority, which has final approval in all funding decisions.

The committees have “a very difficult time sometimes,” Hamel said.

“The best things to do would be to clarify (the guidelines),” Hamel said. “This is what we are suggesting.”

Some board members and event coordinators did not know about the proposed changes until they received a call for comment from The Smoky Mountain News for an article prior to the tourism meeting last week.

“It caught me a little off guard,” said Matthews, who noted that he had not seen the changes to the guidelines until he received the board’s meeting agenda.

Although a tamer version of the proposed guidelines was passed, the board could decide to pass stricter standards in the future.

“This subject comes up every two or three years for discussion,” said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Tourism Development Authority.

A failure by the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce and the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority to provide county leaders reports on how room-tax dollars are spent led this week to promises of prompt corrective action.

Mark Jones, who serves in a dual role as county commissioner and chairman of the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority, said he had not been aware that there had been multiple and ongoing attempts to understand tourism marketing efforts. These are carried out with county funds under the direction of Cashiers Chamber of Commerce Director Sue Bumgarner. Bumgarner also has failed to provide the county with copies of minutes from Cashiers tourism board meetings as requested.

Jones’ concession came, however, after he indicated that he believed adequate information was already available to commissioners from the county’s finance office.

County Finance Officer Darlene Fox “prepares reports every month. Every dollar that goes in and every dollar that goes out,” Jones told the board.

While the bills for the Cashiers tourism agency are filed with the county finance department, it is often not clear from the invoices exactly what it is for, however, with only general references to an ad that ran in an unnamed magazine during an unspecified month or generic “marketing” services.

Chairman Jack Debnam made it evident that he didn’t consider Jones’ suggestion to simply rely on the finance office a satisfying one. Debnam indicated that he wants direct answers from the people with their hands down in the money pot.

“I’ve requested copy of minutes, since January, and information from (Bumgarner) and received nothing,” Debnam said.

Debnam said that the Jackson County Tourism and Travel Authority, by contrast, has provided him information and minutes of board meetings.

“I apologize,” Jones said. “I was not aware of the repetitive requests, but I hear loud and clear now.”

County Attorney Jay Coward told board members they have a lawful right to the information being sought. He did not detail possible remedies if the Cashiers TTA information and minutes continue being withheld from county leaders.

Bumbargner also was unable to provide The Smoky Mountain News with minutes from her tourism board meetings or an accounting of how marketing money was spent, including magazines ads had published in. Bumgarner was not at the commission work session, held this week to discuss whether to hike the county room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent.

 

Room tax hike deliberated

Jones urged a slowdown on the consideration of a room tax hike from 3 to 6 percent. The tax on overnight lodging generated $440,000 last year, which is pumped back into tourism marketing efforts carried out by two separate tourism promotion agencies in the county — the Cashiers and Jackson County Travel and Tourism authorities.

Commissioner Doug Cody defended the county’s attempt to demand accountability for how tourism tax money is being spent.

“I want to know why we are getting our butts kicked, and where our money is going, and is it being used wisely, and I want to find out now. And putting the tax increase aside, there’s a reason we are lagging behind. And, I don’t want to wait a year,” Cody said.

Regional tourism numbers show Jackson County behind other Western North Carolina counties, both in revenue made and jobs created.

The commissioners did not weigh in during the workshop on their individual stances on a room tax increase. Previously, four voted in favor of the increase, but that was before public backlash. Commissioners will take up the issue in early January for a vote, with intentions of studying the issue between now and then.

County Manager Chuck Wooten estimated the county’s two TTAs have spent as much as $10 million combined in tourism tax money over the past 25 years. Cashiers receives 75 percent of the lodging tax generated in the Cashiers area — which amounted to $177,000 last year. The remaining $263,000 went to the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority.

Cashiers’ efforts to attract tourists have been isolated from the county’s overall tourism efforts, spearheaded by the separate Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority and the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.

Cashiers does not share marketing strategy or advertising campaigns with the Jackson County TTA.

 

How we got here

• Jackson County commissioners in early October voted 4-1 to hike the county’s room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent, with Mark Jones voting against the increase.

• The board later rescinded that vote because, as advised by County Attorney Jay Coward, they failed to hold a legally required public hearing.

• A side issue erupted over whether the two separate tourism marketing arms — one for Cashiers and one for the county as a whole — should be merged.

• The obligatory public hearing was held last week, attracting a swarm of unhappy lodging owners from the southern portion of the county who aired their vast displeasure with the proposed increase.

• Commissioners held a work session this week to discuss the possible hike. Discussion among commissioners deteriorated into accusations of underhanded dealing and political power plays. Before the argument broke out, County Manager Chuck Wooten defended the sequence of events leading up to the room-tax vote by presenting commissioners and members of the news media with an inch-tall stack of paperwork. These included emails and other documentation accumulated before and after the October room tax hike.

 

Where do we go next?

County Manager Chuck Wooten provided the following suggestions for consideration by commissioners, carefully emphasizing these were an attempt to help, not control, the debate:

• Take no action: Occupancy tax remains at 3 percent and the county’s two travel and tourism boards continue as currently configured.

• Make minor structural changes: Keep two tourism agencies, but provide more flexibility in how the room tax is spent, allowing a portion to go toward “tourism-related expenditures,” including capital projects, rather than solely marketing and promotions.

• Do a comprehensive performance evaluation of the current tourism agencies and analyze the effectiveness of these organizations, then make decisions based off of the results.

• Hike the tax from 3 percent to 6 percent and form a single Jackson County Tourism Development Authority.

The Haywood County Tourism Board was hoping for a 15 percent increase in occupancy tax collection this August, but what it saw was a 20 percent decline.

“The August numbers aren’t good,” said Lynn Collins, director of the tourism agency.

It brought in $93,646 from its 4 percent tax on overnight lodging this August. However, it had projected that it would raise at least $114,442 — a 20 percent different.

“A lot of it has to do with the increase I projected for August,” Collins said. “If you look at it in comparison to last year, it doesn’t look as bad as it does compared to budget.”

When compared to last year, the decrease is only 7 percent, or almost $5,000.

Collins said she predicted an increase because of the number of area sporting events, including the Blue Ridge Breakaway and the Maggie Valley Moonlight Run. High gas prices and the economy continue to negatively affect the tourism board’s occupancy tax numbers, she said.

Despite the decline, Collins said she remains optimistic that things will improve.

“I feel good about it,” Collins said.

The tourism agency will not adjust its projections or make any cuts until January, she said.

At its quarterly meeting earlier this month, the tourism board began discussing ways to find vacation home renters who are evading the county’s lodging tax.

Collins is currently looking into software from the Virginia-based company VRCompliance, which searches the Internet for property listings and identifies rentals that are not paying the room tax.

The agency is also looking for more effective ways to censure businesses or renters who know about the tax but do not pay it. The tax doesn’t come out the lodgers’ revenue but is supposed to be added to the bill of those renting a room or house.

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority may outsource its search for vacation home renters who are evading the county’s 4 percent tax on overnight lodging.

Lynn Collins, director of the tourism agency, plans to meet with Virginia-based software company VRCompliance over the next month. The company scours the Internet for property listings and helps identify renters in the county who are not collecting room tax.

The company would get a finder’s fee for each offender it tracks down that is brought into compliance, Collins said, but didn’t know exactly what that fee is yet.

Ferreting out people who rent their vacation homes under the radar is such a universal problem, VRCompliance, which stands for Vacation Rental Compliance, saw it as a business opportunity. It created software to search the web for vacation listings, and is now marketing that service to tourism agencies across the country trying to enforce the room tax.

Part of the problem is simply ignorance that vacation home rentals are subject to the overnight tax. Last month, the Haywood tourism agency announced a campaign to inform vacation homeowners that they are required to levy a 4 percent tax if they rent their property.

“That’s where the big money is,” said Ken Stahl, the board’s finance chair.

Stahl said he looked into cross-referencing local cabin addresses with the North Carolina Department of Revenue’s income tax records, but the department has not been willing to cooperate in the past.

And, even if the agency identifies properties skirting the tax law, the consequences — a fine or legal action — are still not enough to convince some to pay. While some are unaware of the law, other lodge owners are knowingly ignoring it, apparently collecting the tax from patrons but not passing it along to the county.

“Many of the hotels and motels feel that nothing is going to happen … because nothing has happened in the past,” said Marion Hamel of the Haywood County TDA.

During its meeting last Wednesday, the tourism board discussed other ways to enforce the tax law.

“We just got to have teeth,” said County Commissioner Michael Sorrells.

Among the options discussed were printing repeat offenders’ names in the newspaper and pulling their information from the board’s website and publication.

The county has previously used liens to bring people into compliance and mailed letters threatening legal action. Those who owe taxes also receive monthly bills.

“They know they’re not paying,” said Julie Davis, the finance officer for Haywood County.

The tax on overnight lodging is used for tourism promotions for the county. Haywood County collected about $135,198 in occupancy taxes this July — almost $10,800 less than the same period last year.

Stahl said the economy and a decline in tourism are responsible for the decrease.

“People say it’s not a double dip recession, but it sure feels like it,” he said.

Haywood County business owners who have been dodging the 4 percent lodging tax will now find themselves facing a crackdown, although some dodgers may not even be aware of their crime.

The lodging tax applies not only to hotels, B&B’s and traditional overnight stays, but also to those who rent out vacation homes or rooms for fewer than 90 days.

A flyer will be included in every property tax bill this year explaining the 4 percent tax vacation home owners should be levying and remitting to the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

Many second-home owners who rent their houses on the side for a little extra money often don’t even know that they have to pay, said Lynn Collins, executive director of the TDA.

Collins and her team trawl Websites such as Trip Advisor, Home and Away, and VRBO, which all advertise vacation rentals, complete with address, photos and customer reviews.

Mostly, when people realize they have to pay, they’re pretty good about getting compliant, said Collins.

Collins calls the push to bring in the money an awareness campaign, but her group isn’t just trying to reach the unknowing. They’re going after folks who have simply stopped paying outright, not only by the standard methods of levying fines but also pursuing delinquents through court.

Determining why business owners don’t pay is a little tricky, especially motel owners who know they should and simply don’t.

“It’s a combination of things. Some of it has to do with the economy, some of it has to do with awareness,” said Collins. “For the people who have perhaps quit paying or quit filing, we don’t know.”

For those who use the economy as an excuse to not pay, the reason falls pretty flat.

“This is not coming out of their pockets,” said Collins.

The businesses are simply acting as a pass-through from customer, who pays the extra tax on their overnight room bill, and remitting it to the TDA.

Many businesses, she posits, may not consider the tourism tax quite as mandatory as across-the-board taxes like sales and income tax.

And, said Collins, the tourism authority hasn’t been as staunch about enforcing the laws in the past, which will now change.

Collins said that businesses who begrudge the tax should recognize that its buying them a range of marketing services, even for small, by-owner vacation rentals.

“They get a free listing on the TDA website, they get a free listing in the TDA visitor’s  guide, they get a free listing in the state visitor’s guide and travel website, so there’s a tremendous amount of marketing being done on their behalf,” said Collins.

Regardless of the benefits, paying up is just the law.

“We’re losing a lot of money and it’s not fair to the folks who are following the law and paying the tax for some of their peers to not be doing it,” Collins said.

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