In the world of Haywood County tourism, a turf battle is brewing, and the fiefdoms under fire are the county’s visitor centers.

What might seem like the friendly face of local tourism has once again become a battleground where funding dollars are the ultimate prize, and the most recent conflict has flared over Canton’s visitor center. It’s a small building, situated just off Interstate 40 on Champion Drive, in what was once a car wash. It has been closed on and off for the past year as the county’s tourism agency struggled with funding shortfalls, and is now at risk of having the plug pulled completely.

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority plans to shift funding for the Canton visitor center, which sees little traffic, to a new, flagship visitor center on Main Street in downtown Waynesville with the promise of reaching more people.

Canton Mayor Pat Smathers has spoken out against the funding cut, pointing out the Canton visitor center’s proximity to I-40, making it more visible than any of the other three visitor centers in the county.

“I think a big push ought to be made to make that the premier center in the county, not just because it’s Canton, but because that’s the main corridor in the county,” said Smathers. “More visitors come in contact with I-40 than with any other place in the county and that visitors center should be a place to stop people and be able to funnel them into Maggie Valley, into Waynesville, Cruso, Canton, Clyde — everywhere in the county.”

Smathers said he’d be disappointed if the Canton center was relegated in favor of TDA’s newer Waynesville visitor center.

“I don’t know why we’re going to put more visitor centers up in Waynesville and not fund the one here on the main corridor,” Smathers said.

The visitor center isn’t Canton’s only bone to pick with the TDA. At last week’s TDA meeting, it was highlighted that a new map put out by the tourism agency showcased Waynesville and Maggie Valley as the only towns in the county. Canton didn’t even make an appearance. Neither did Clyde.

TDA Executive Director Lynn Collins defended the map, saying that listed locations were given to those who bought ad space.

 

TDA makes amends with Haywood Chamber

Canton isn’t the only visitor center to lose funding to make way for TDA’s new endeavor. The tourism agency announced it would ax $30,000 in funding a year for a Waynesville visitor center operated by the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce — diverting the money to its own visitor center instead.

While the TDA’s new visitor center will be mere blocks from the one run by the chamber, the chamber plans to keep operating its visitor center anyway — resulting in two visitor centers three blocks apart.

Pleas from the chamber of commerce not to yank its funding so suddenly convinced the TDA board to partially reverse course. The TDA board decided last week to restore partial funding to the tune of $13,000 for the coming fiscal year, but not without some dissension among board members.

TDA board member Lyndon Lowe questioned the decision, especially in light of the Canton visitor center predicament.

“Canton’s visitor center we say that we don’t have money for but we’re going to subsidize the one here?” Lowe asked fellow board members before voting against the funding.

Marion Hamel agreed, saying she would feel more comfortable with a smaller amount.

“I feel that $13,000 is putting us over the edge,” said Hamel, who represents Maggie Valley on the TDA. “I understand the rationale behind it, I just wish that it wasn’t as much money as it is.”

Jennifer Duerr, TDA board member and owner of the Windover Inn, also expressed concerns over the fairness of partial funding to the chamber for its visitor center but not Canton’s.

“If we’re going to not be making an exception for one, I’m a little uncomfortable making it for another,” said Duerr.

The measure eventually passed, though not unanimously, with Hamel, Lowe and Duerr casting the only dissenting votes.

 

Canton fate up in the air

TDA planned to pull its staff out of the Canton visitor center in May and turn it over to volunteers to run, but not enough volunteers materialized. Total closure seemed imminent, but a rescue came through from a special pot of tourism money controlled by Canton.

A portion of tourism tax dollars are divvied up between five locales in the county to use on pet projects. Canton has elected to use $3,000 from its special pool of money to staff the visitor center through July. The TDA, however, is still calling for volunteers to help work the center at other times.

TDA board members maintain that they are committed to keeping the center open and believe in its viability.

“It is our every intention to keep that visitor center open,” said Ken Stahl, a TDA board member, but he has also noted that many driving visitors find information via GPS and Web-enabled phones, rather than through traditional highway visitor centers.

Strictly by the numbers, Canton’s center ranks third out of the county’s four visitor’s centers for actual visitors, trailing the popular Balsam center and Maggie Valley’s location.

However, Haywood County Economic Development Director Mark Clasby, who sits on the TDA, said that the Canton center should be a priority for tourism in the county.

“I think it plays an important role,” said Clasby. “Before the rock slide that we had, the numbers for the Canton visitor’s center were up. I think it’s a very important geographic location.”

Canton Town Manager Al Matthews is  both the town manager in Canton and a TDA board member himself.

“The town sees the necessity and advisability of having a visitor center here,” said Matthews. “We have been working with the TDA, trying to make sure that the visitor’s center is open on a regular basis.”

The car-wash-cum-visitor’s-center may not be the only iron in the fire for Canton, though. Back in 2004, the idea for a more comprehensive visitor’s experience off I-40 in Canton was proposed, but stalled before getting funding for a feasibility study when the economy tanked two years later.

There’s talk of the concept being resurrected, however, as part of an economic development plan being crafted for the town using a grant from the N.C. Rural Center.

Matthews said that, though it’s an idea that’s on the table, it’s far too early to speculate about its practicality.

“Hypothetically that is an option, but it’s premature to say that could or should or would happen,” said Matthews.

It’s still unclear whether Canton’s current center will be able to stay open full time into the next fiscal year. Lynn Collins, TDA’s executive director, said they “were still working it out.”

Folkmoot festival has lost a vital source of advertising money, jeopardizing its ability to lure visitors to Haywood County during the festival’s two-week summer run.

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority announced its intention this month to yank its annual contribution to Folkmoot USA. The TDA has given Folkmoot between $6,000 and $12,000 every year since the festival’s inception in 1984.

Folkmoot President Chuck Dickson made a heartfelt pitch to the TDA board last week, asking them to reinstate the funding.

“Folkmoot has helped put Haywood County on the map and has definitely enhanced Haywood County’s reputation as a tourist destination,” Dickson told the 15 members of the TDA board.

TDA board members cited a still-slumping economy and overhead associated with a new downtown Waynesville visitor center as the culprits.

The festival turns Haywood County into an international bazaar every July, with more than 200 dancers and musicians from a dozen countries staging a series of performances and parades. The TDA funding is spent marketing the festival to audiences across the South.

Last year, Folkmoot only got a portion of what they requested — $6,000 of the $9,000 they were looking for — which covered just under a third of the $19,000 spent on advertising.

Cutting the contribution altogether would hurt Folkmoot’s ability to publicize the festival. Dickson said Folkmoot helps TDA achieve its own mission of luring overnight visitors.

“We put heads in beds — perhaps more than any other event in Haywood County,” said Dickson. “In 2010, 5,000 people attended ticketed events, 2,000 attended free events, and over 50,000 attended the parade and Festival Day, two events for which Folkmoot receives absolutely no money.”

Dickson came armed with both a crowd of Folkmoot supporters and an economic impact study done by Western Carolina University in 2008.

The study walks through the particulars of just how much money and business the festival pulls into the county, but the final total was over $4 million for the 2007 festival.

“These contributions not only increase the appeal of the festival from year to year, but help reinforce the attractiveness of the area in general and that of all other cultural events in the region,” summarized the study.

 

TDA cuts spurred by budget woes of its own

None of the TDA board members were arguing against that claim. In fact, several espoused the merits of having such a large and unique event housed in the county for such a long time.

However, they weren’t enamored enough to restore the funding.

The TDA board cited the same oft-repeated reason for budget cuts heard at the local, state and national levels of late: it’s the economy, what else can we do?

“It’s more about looking at harsh finances right now and looking at the bigger picture. I would rather give people more money, but we’re just in a situation with the budget and the money’s just not coming in,” said Jennifer Duerr, TDA board member and owner of the Windover Inn.

The TDA raises money with a 4 percent tax on overnight lodging, bringing in close to $1 million a year. As tourism has dropped with the recession, however, the TDA has seen its budget shrink by nearly $300,000 in three years.

This year alone, the TDA has come up $115,000 short of what it anticipated, leaving the agency struggling to make mid-year budget cuts.

TDA Board Member Ken Stahl floated the idea that Folkmoot lobby Buncombe and Jackson counties for contributions, but Dickson said that tactic was a bit of a long shot, given that they only put on a max of two shows in those counties.

The official suggestion was that Folkmoot apply to special pots of TDA money controlled by individual communities within the county. Maggie Valley, Waynesville, Lake Junaluska, Canton and Clyde each get a slice of TDA money to spend on pet projects, from concerts to brochures to micro-level marketing. A quarter of the total TDA budget is divvied up among the county’s five locales.

The TDA board told Folkmoot to take its request to the five committees that oversee the five pots of money.

Folkmoot has historically been paid out of the general fund since the festival is county-wide and holds events in literally each of the five locales, Dixon said. So which one would Folkmoot apply to? The board told Dixon to apply to all five.

The problem there is that those committees won’t have any cash to hand out until autumn at the earliest. In fact, grants for this round of funding were approved later at the same meeting.

Not everybody on the TDA board was in favor of cutting Folkmoot from the tourism agency’s general budget.

Mark Clasby, the county’s economic development director who also sits on the TDA, was vocally opposed to revoking the money.

“The recognition Folkmoot has brought to Haywood County is tremendous, and I disagree with the recommendation that you’re making,” Clasby told board members. “I think it’s wrong.”

Clasby said that Folkmoot is so well-known it’s one of the tools he uses to pitch Haywood County when he’s out courting business development for the county, and that if any organization deserves the money, it’s Folkmoot.

“I certainly understand the budget situation we’re all facing, but at least give them some funding and support,” said Clasby.

TDA Board Member Jennifer Duerr countered Clasby’s view, arguing that it’s just about a change in the way funds are given out, thanks to the economy. The dwindling general fund should be kept for county-wide causes, she said.

“It’s not that we want to not give the money, it’s just not there. Do we give the money to one event, or keep it to represent the entire county?” asked Duerr.

Other members voiced similar views, with Alice Aumen, the board’s chairperson, saying that this year’s budget has been particularly trying.

“It has been one of the most difficult years since I’ve been on the board,” said Aumen.

James Carver, owner of the Maggie Valley Restaurant and board member, said he’d love to give Folkmoot money this year, but that it just wasn’t there.

“I‘ve always been a big supporter of Folkmoot, but money’s down,” said Carver.

In the end, the TDA board gave Dickson and his compatriots their apologies and an invitation to come back and ask again next year, but if they were hoping for a check, they went away empty handed.

“What we would like to leave Folkmoot with is that it is an important event. We all hope it’s going to be a great year for travel and tourism and revenues are going to come up,” said TDA Board Member Sue Knapko, encouraging festival officials to come back again if the committees don’t work out.

Less than a year after opening a new visitor center in downtown Waynesville, the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce learned last week that its funding for the site is on the chopping block by the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

The county tourism agency plans to open its own visitor center downtown and end its subsidy for the one run by the chamber.

The tourism agency is better positioned to operate a one-stop shop for tourists looking for things to do and see in the county, according to TDA Director Lynn Collins.

“Our sole purpose in life is to market Harwood County as a destination,” Collins said.

It makes sense for the TDA, which is in charge of branding and marketing the county, to run its own visitor center for tourists to provide a seamless message rather than contract the role out to the chamber.

“This is a good time for us to take control of our program and tell our story the way we want to tell it,” Collins said.

The chamber received $30,000 from the TDA to run a visitor center. Losing that revenue will not be easy and could mean the loss of staff, according to CeCe Hipps, the Haywood chamber’s executive director.

“Anytime an organization gets that big of a budget cut, we will have to look at how we do our day-to-day operations,” Hipps said.

The chamber says it will not shut down its visitor center, however, despite the loss of funding. A visitor center is still central to the chamber’s mission, Hipps said.

“Chambers are considered a trusted and established source of information,” Hipps said. “Regardless of the outcome of this we will maintain our visibility and maintain our visitor center. Nothing will change for us from that aspect.”

The result: two visitor centers less than three blocks apart in downtown Waynesville.

The turn of events comes as the Tourism Development Authority grapples with budget shortfalls of its own. The TDA raises money with a 4 percent tax on overnight lodging, bringing in close to $1 million a year. That money is pumped back into tourism promotions, from national advertising campaigns to mini-grants for local festivals.

As tourism has dropped with the recession, however, the TDA has seen its budget shrink by more than $200,000 in three years. This year alone, the TDA has come up $115,000 short of what it anticipated, leaving the agency struggling to make mid-year budget cuts.

“We didn’t just wake up one morning and say ‘Let’s go take the chamber’s funding away from it.’ There is a quite a bit of planning and pros and cons and up and down that when into this,” said Ken Stahl, TDA finance chair.

However, the chamber learned only last week that its visitor center funding is in jeopardy with the start of the new fiscal year come July. Such short notice will make it hard to adjust, Hipps said.

Key members of the chamber board and TDA board met last week to discuss the issue. Ron Leatherwood, the incoming president of the chamber board, said the TDA might be willing to phase out the visitor center funding over two years rather than doing it all at once. That would certainly soften the blow, he said.

The visitor center funding is more than 10 percent of the chamber’s annual budget, and it will be a challenge to make up the difference, Leatherwood said.

But Leatherwood said he understands why the TDA, which is in the tourism business after all, wants its own visitor center. If they can serve the number of visitors they hope to — 40,000 a year — it will surely be a good thing for the county, Leatherwood said.

“Hopefully it will be successful for all of us. A rising tide lifts all boats,” Leatherwood said.

 

A full-service visitor center

The TDA envisions a full-service visitor center, where tourists will be awed by an endless list of things to do in Haywood County, from crafts to fly-fishing to motorcycle rides. Not to mention a clearinghouse for all the special events going on any given weekend, something that doesn’t exist now.

“We hope to achieve a little bit of synergism here,” said Stahl.

And since the TDA lives and breathes tourism, it can best disseminate that information, Collins said.

“We have a very good handle on what is going on in the county,” Collins said.

Collins also wants their visitor center to be open seven days a week, compared to the chamber’s visitor center, which is only open on weekdays.

The TDA is negotiating a lease to house the visitor center and its administrative offices in a storefront on Main Street across from Mast General store — in the thick of the downtown action. It’s a better spot for snagging foot traffic than the chamber’s location, Stahl said.

Stahl hopes a new visitor center will catch 40,000 visitors a year compared to the 6,000 seen at the chamber’s visitor center.

“When the foot traffic is in the thousands up there on Main Street, it is an opportunity for us to reach out and touch a lot more people than what we have been for essentially the same amount of money,” Stahl said.

The chamber’s visitor center is past the courthouse in a historic home a block beyond the main shopping district. To Hipps, the location is ideal: at the corner where Russ Avenue, a main corridor into downtown, feeds into Main Street.

The chamber just moved into the building last June. It had been without a permanent home for much of the past decade, bopping from one location to another every few years. A visible spot for the visitor center was the top consideration in the quest for a permanent site.

“That was our main driver. We wanted to have a gateway into the downtown area,” Hipps said.

The chamber’s physical quarters are impressive and inviting. The stately historic brick home has a wide front porch decked out in rocking chairs. The lobby has a grand double staircase and features include hardwood floors and black-and-white checked bathroom tiles. Its interior décor is appointed with comfy sofas and lush ferns. The front lawn is crowned by stately oaks with views down Main Street.

“We wanted something that would give people a really good first impression,” Hipps said.

The chamber made a sizeable investment when signing a three-year lease on the building.

Hipps said tourists quickly make themselves at home there.

“Finding the perfect home for a visitor center was so key. Had we known this a year ago we probably would have looked at other options,” Hipps said.

 

Move in the cards

Until now, the TDA has been holed up in an obscure county office building carrying out a mostly administrative role. Few in the county could tell you where the agency was headquartered, despite its very showy mission of broadcasting Haywood’s tourism accolades to the world.

Despite a sweetheart deal — the county charged the TDA only $250 a month in rent — the TDA had been contemplating a move to new offices for a couple of years.

But it was spurred recently into action by a massive reshuffling of county office space — one that might leave the TDA with no home at all.

Most of the occupants housed in the same office building as TDA are moving to an abandoned Wal-Mart being remodeled for various county departments. The project was motivated by the need to replace the antiquated quarters of the Department of Social Services but has led to musical chairs for other county offices as well.

The county hasn’t decided yet whether TDA can stay where it is, whether it might give the space to different county departments, or whether it will sell the building.

While it’s not certain TDA will get the boot, it was enough to get the TDA’s attention.

“They have not said definitively we have to move any certain time. Their exact words from the county manager were it would be prudent for you to start looking,” Collins said.

It seemed like a good time to pull the trigger on something they wanted to do anyway.

“We don’t want to wait until the music stops and not have a chair,” Stahl said.

If the TDA is going to fork out substantially more in rent, it will cut into its already tight budget. To make it work financially, the TDA will take visitor center funding away from the chamber to cover the rent, bringing visitor enter operations in-house in the process.

“If we are going to move we want to move into something that totally completes our mission,” said Alice Aumen, chair of the TDA board.

Part of that mission is to bring the TDA to the next level as an agency.

Since the TDA’s creation 25 years ago, it has funded visitor centers run by both the Haywood chamber and Maggie Valley chamber.

While it made sense for the TDA to outsource visitor center operations in its infancy — in the early days it had no staff of its own let alone an office — it has grown into a major marketing force for tourism and needs to take a leading role in serving tourists once they arrive.

There’s another advantage to running its own visitor center: to advance marketing research, Collins said. Currently, TDA staff responsible for marketing the county don’t interface directly with the traveling public on a daily basis. Collins wants to survey visitors and find out what brought them here, where they are from, how much they are spending, who’s in the traveling party, and what they like to do.

“It helps us get to know our visitors better. We can conduct all kinds of market research to build our marketing program appropriately,” Collins said. “If you don’t have research you are flying by the seat of your pants.”

The days of shotgun advertising is over, said Aumen.

“This is a huge opportunity for us to do research on who the actual visitor is,” Aumen said.

Plus, TDA can capture the email addresses of visitors, which are worth their weight in gold for direct marketing through social media like Facebook.

While the TDA is in the business of luring visitors to the county, there’s still an advantage to engaging those who are already here.

“Even though they are already here, we can get information in their hands that would make them want to extend their stay or come back for a visit at another point in the year,” Collins said.

 

Fulfilling a mission

Before moving in to its new office last year, the chamber invited the TDA to share the space. The two entities could run a joint visitor center and share overhead expenses, Hipps suggested.

Talk of co-locating the chamber and TDA have surfaced on and off over the years, but this marked the first formal invitation to the TDA to move in together.

“We wanted to continue and strengthen our partnership and to continue to work together and collaborate,” Hipps said.

Hipps said the two entities have the same common goal, namely “to promote Haywood County.”

It’s common for chambers of commerce and county tourism agencies to share offices and staff while maintaining separate budgets. It’s done in Asheville to the east and Jackson County to the west.

But co-locating with the chamber did not fit the TDA’s mission.

While tourism is the TDA’s only focus, the chamber recruits new businesses, promotes commerce, supports entrepreneurs and engages in economic development.

“A visitor center is not their primary mission,” Stahl said.

But Hipps said tourism is integral to the county’s economy, and thus integral to the chamber’s mission.

“Our model has always been everyone in this county is connected to tourism,” Hipps said. “We can’t dissect and separate the chamber from tourism.”

That said, the chamber’s visitor center does serve as a point of contact for people moving to Haywood County, buying a second home, relocating their business, starting a new business — all of whom may have started out as just a tourist at one time.

“We are so connected with the big picture that the overall economic impact is much greater than the numbers for foot traffic that comes through the door,” Hipps said. “Our business model is all inclusive.”

The chamber’s visitor center is critical a point of contact for business inquiries, said Leatherwood. You never know when a “lone eagle” will stroll into the visitor center, for example. That term refers to a mobile professional who can do their job online from anywhere and may be seeking a new place to move, Leatherwood said.

 

A county of many visitor centers

The visitor center run by the Haywood Chamber is one of four funded by the TDA.

“We are probably the only TDA in the state that funds four visitor centers,” Stahl said.

One in Maggie Valley run by the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce gets $30,000 a year from the TDA. The other two — one at the highway rest area in Balsam and one off the interstate in Canton — are staffed by the TDA at a cost of $25,000 each.

The Canton visitor center was opened only three years ago, but tourist traffic there has not panned out. A cinderblock car wash beside a gas station was converted into a visitor center.

Faced with a budget shortfall last spring, the TDA shut the Canton visitor center for six weeks. Traffic had fallen sharply anyway due to a rockslide that shut down I-40. But even once I-40 opened again, numbers remained low. In the fall, hours were scaled back, and in January it was shut completely. The TDA plans to turn it over to volunteers with the Canton merchant association.

The visitor centers in Maggie Valley and at Balsam draw higher numbers of visitors (see chart). Neither is on the chopping block for now.

The TDA will continue funding the visitor centers that perform better, but could not justify funding those that saw such a small number of visitors, Stahl said.

Hipps said the chamber is grateful for TDA support all these years and believes the two entities will continue to work together.

“We have a very successful business model here. TDA has been a part of that success by helping to fund that part of what we do,” Hipps said.

Should a private business receive taxpayer money to stage an event?

That was the question of the hour at two recent meetings of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority as the board discussed how to dole out its dollars.

The debate was prompted by a funding request from the Waynesville Inn Golf Resort and Spa. The resort had snagged the interest of the Western North Carolina Porsche Club and enticed them to hold a car show on the property in July. The group had never had an event in the mountains west of Asheville, so representatives from the resort saw it as a prime opportunity to attract a new breed of clientele.

“We’re trying to bring some different kinds of business to this county,” Waynesville Inn owner Dave Stubbs told the TDA board. “Our feeling is you have to have that targeted. You can’t just say, ‘come to Haywood County’ — you’ve got to have a specific thing going on. We’re trying to take the lead to design and sponsor a specific event.”

TDA members seemed impressed with the idea.

“I think we’ve got an opportunity to really reach out and do something new,” said board member James Carver.

But would the Porsche show really benefit Haywood County as a whole, TDA members wondered? After all, the whole event would be hosted on the grounds of the Waynesville Inn, with meals and a special room rate included in the package.

“I think what you’re trying to do is certainly admirable, but I think the point is there are many events that come into town but they’re not based at a hotel and the money isn’t going to a hotel,” said board member Marion Hamel.

Hamel continued to argue her case the next day at a meeting of the TDA finance committee, which was coming up with funding recommendations.

“The problem is, you’re setting a precedent,” she said. “We have turned down so many ads and events because it doesn’t include everybody, and we’re in danger of setting a precedent we can’t afford to set.”

Board member Jen Duerr said that attitude, long prevalent in the TDA, was doing the area more harm than good.

“I think that’s what’s holding this area back,” she said.

Chair Alice Aumen said she saw a need for the TDA to be more flexible in its thinking.

“Let’s see if we can make it fit rather than saying no, because I think that makes us look very close-minded,” Aumen said. “If someone has gone to all the trouble to bring in this event, they deserve something.”

TDA Executive Director Lynn Collins told the board to think twice before turning down an event that someone else had done all the effort to attract.

“If somebody out there is willing to take on some of this stuff and help us expand our reach and our markets, then we need to think seriously about letting them help us,” Collins said.

Board member Ken Stahl said that despite good arguments in favor of funding the Porsche event, doing so would still raise some questions.

“We have a problem if we directly subsidize a private enterprise and then they directly benefit from it,” said Stahl.

The board eventually settled on a compromise: it would fund the Porsche event, as well as another event being held at a Maggie Valley hotel, for the events’ inaugural year only.

Requests for Haywood Tourism Development Authority money this year ran the gamut from the predictable to events making their debut this season.

The TDA generates a pot of money from a 4 percent tax levied each time someone pays for a hotel room in the county. Three percent of that money goes into a general fund to be divvied up among the entire county, while the other 1 percent is divvied up by zip code. Each of the county’s five geographic regions — Maggie Valley, Waynesville, Lake Junaluska, Canton and Clyde — receives an amount of money proportional to the room tax they collect.

Maggie Valley, with its many hotels and motels, generates the most room tax of any zip code, and thus has the most money to give. Its zip code fielded nearly $200,000 in requests. As has been the case in the past, the biggest number of applications targeted festivals, including Run to the Valley Street Rod Show, Maggie Valley Fall Days, Mountain Music Jamboree, a Harley rally, Vettes in the Valley, and a classic auto and truck show. The TDA finance committee recommended funding for each of the events.

Big winners when it came to the TDA’s recommendations were a festival director position, for which $20,000 was recommended. This position is funded by the town of Maggie Valley and the TDA, and there is already a person hired. The Maggie Valley Lodging Association’s request for advertising to motorcycles also made out well, with a TDA recommended amount of $11,600. The money will go to fund a Speed channel advertising package.

The TDA extended conservative funding recommendations to Ghost Town in the Sky, the Maggie Valley theme park that recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Some of the requests were denied funding, such as the park’s Gospel Sundays series and its request for an Industry Partnership with the TDA. The TDA did agree to provide some money for a Ghost Town Media Day, though to the tune of $1,500 rather than the $4,000 Ghost Town requested. Ghost Town’s request for co-op advertising was also granted, though only half of the $10,630 requested was recommended.

Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver didn’t show up for a public hearing on TDA funding requests, though he was scheduled to speak. Shiver’s absence didn’t appear to help the park’s case. The TDA is already reluctant to extend money to the theme park due to concerns over whether it will be able to open this season.

“On my cheat sheet here, I’ve got a big fat zero” next to Ghost Town, remarked TDA Finance Committee member Ron Reid as the committee went down a list of funding requests.

 

Waynesville

The TDA fielded a diverse list of requests for Waynesville’s 1 percent money. Among them: $3,000 for a traveling Vietnam Wall, $3,000 to light the Public Art sculpture in downtown Waynesville, $3,000 for an Appalachian Lifestyle Celebration and $3,000 for a Wine and Winter Festival in downtown Waynesville.

The recommendation to award $11,605 to the Downtown Waynesville Association for co-op advertising sparked a debate over where advertising dollars being spent — in this case, some ads are placed in local publications like The Smoky Mountain News, The Mountaineer and the Asheville Citizen-Times. TDA members questioned how effective those venues are for reaching a regional audience.

“Co-op advertising is a great idea, but we’re advertising in all the wrong places,” said Reid.

 

More of the pie

A variety of events tapped into the TDA’s 3 percent pot of money. The finance committee put its stamp on funding amounts requested for a Haywood County Agricultural brochure, Smoky Mountain 9-ball and Wheelchair Tournament, the Fines Creek Bluegrass Jam, and Maggie Valley’s Miss Maggie program.

Not every request was met with complete approval. A play in honor of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s 75th anniversary was awarded less than the requested amount after TDA members determined that some of the money was going to fund entertainment.

“I didn’t think that we paid for storytellers and dancers. I thought we paid for advertising and brochures,” said TDA Finance Committee member Marion Hamel. “I think it’s a great thing to do, but I don’t think we should be paying for the entertainment.”

The TDA also modified a request for money to help advertise a golf package deal featuring the Waynesville Inn Golf Resort and Spa and the Maggie Valley Country Club. Members agreed to award the requested $150 on the condition that the Lake Junaluska Golf Course be invited to become a part of the deal.

The TDA board will vote on the funding recommendations April 22.

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority will weigh the merits of grant applications from tourism groups over the coming week.

Every year, tourism initiatives, from festivals to visitor center operations, compete for funding from the tourism authority. Haywood County hopes to bring in a little more than $1 million in tourism revenue over the 2009-2010 fiscal year, thanks to a 4 percent tax tacked on to overnight lodging accomodations. The tax carries a stipulation that it must be spent on tourism promotion. How to allocate the money is up to a 12-member tourism board appointed by the county.

Most of the money is used by the tourism authority to market Haywood County as a visitor destination through brochures, magazine ads, billboards, the Internet and various marketing campaigns.

But two pots of money are set aside specifically to fund special tourism projects and festivals by nonprofits and groups throughout the county. Competition for the funds has been contentious in past years — so contenious in fact that it led the county to raise the tax on overnight lodding from 3 percent of 4 percent to provide a bigger pot of money to go around.

That extra 1 percent — roughly $250,000 for the coming fiscal year — is divied up among geographic areas in the county. Each district gets money proportional to the amount of lodging tax collected from that district.

Committees from each of the five districts — Maggie, Waynesville, Lake Junaluska, Canton and Clyde — make recommendations to the Haywood tourism authority on which projects to fund from their respective district. The tourism authority has the final say, however.

On top of the money allocated for each district, the tourism authority sets aside another $100,000 to fund visitor centers and tourism initiatives seeking money from the general tourism budget rather than the special pot allocated for one of the geographic areas.

Haywood County is having a bit of an identity crisis.

The Tourism Development Authority touts the county as a place “Where the Sun Rises on the Smokies.” The slogan, created in 2005 by the Tombras Group marketing agency, appears on everything from billboards to print ads to visitor guides. But since it was created, the TDA has welcomed a slate of new members and a new executive director, all of whome have their own opinions about the logo.

At a recent TDA retreat, the slogan’s effectiveness — and whether it’s a good representation of Haywood County — was called into question.

Betty Huskins, a senior vice president at regional economic development group AdvantageWest, facilitated the March 25 retreat. Huskins asked the TDA board to throw out several phrases that represent what attracts visitors to the area. Board members came up with several, including “feeling grounded,” “getting back to basics,” “family values,” and “breath of fresh air.” The current slogan and its focus on the Great Smoky Mountains was conspicuously absent from the suggestions.

“What do they feel? I don’t think it’s ‘gateway to the Smokies,’” Huskins commented.

Board chair Alice Aumen questioned what the slogan tells visitors about the area, if anything.

“Does “Where the Sun Rises on the Smokies,” say anything?” she asked.

The use of the term “Smokies” to refer to far western North Carolina has long posed a dilemma for tourism groups trying to promote the area. Though the region is technically in the Smoky Mountains, many feel that it’s not thought of as such.

“We’re sitting here touting ourselves as the Smoky Mountains, but as far as the consumer is concerned, Tennessee owns the Smokies,” said Lynn Collins, TDA executive director. “Could we identify ourselves better?”

After the retreat, Collins added that “research has proven that in the consumers’ minds, Tennessee pretty much owns the Smokies, and maybe we could position ourselves better.”

Board member Ken Stahl, who was on the TDA when the slogan was adopted, said he likes it more than some of the others the TDA has used in the past. Stahl said the phrase evokes an image of beauty, which is a major reason visitors are attracted to the region.

“If you’ve ever experienced a sunrise here and watched that, particularly when there’s mist on the valleys and the mountains, it’s a gorgeous, beautiful sight,” Stahl said.

TDA members also questioned whether the current slogan targets the area’s largest visitor demographic, which Huskins said is generally a higher-educated, older individual with money to spend.

“We need to start thinking about who our brand is, and marketing to that individual,” said Board Member Ron Reid.

Stahl, however, thinks the logo already targets the county’s major demographic of visitors.

“Our profile is people who are 55 and older that come here with discretionary spending,” Stahl said. “They come here for the scenic beauty, and you can’t highlight it any more than ‘Where the Sun Rises on the Smokies.’”

The TDA has no immediate plans to change its logo, but members did express interest in collecting feedback as to what the county’s brand should be. Collins, who has experience in previous jobs developing brands, said the TDA could start by conducting an online survey of people who have visited the county and asking them to describe in several words what they think of the area.

“You tally feedback and find a pattern out of it, a common theme,” Collins said. “It usually stands out, and you tweak it a little bit and take it and run with it. I’m hoping that can happen (here) as a result of doing some surveys and things.”

Collins said the method of relying on visitor feedback would be in contrast to the way things have been done in the past, when the TDA board paid a marketing organization to come up with a logo and campaign.

“In years past, that brand has been determined from the top down,” she said. “(At the retreat), we talked about going from the bottom up.”

 

TDA considers downtown location

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority is in talks with the Haywood Chamber of Commerce about the possibility of moving both organizations into a roomy, historic building on the corner of Walnut and Main streets in Waynesville.

The building, which has sat on the market for more than a year, would be a prominent location for both organizations. TDA Executive Director Lynn Collins said her group has already gotten quotes on the rental price per square foot and has toured the house to determine which part of the building the TDA would occupy.

Collins said the TDA is waiting for the owner of the house to get back to the group with drawings, square footage and prices.

“Then we can look at our budget and see if we can afford it,” Collins said.

The TDA will also look at costs it will save by combining some of its business equipment with the Chamber.

Collins cautioned that discussions about the move are still “very, very preliminary.”

Farmer Skipper Russell thought he was helping drive tourism with his famous corn “maize,” an agricultural attraction he operates each fall in Bethel. After all, the maze attracted nearly 7,000 visitors this year, many from out of town, who came to wander through the series of intricate paths cut into his corn field.

But the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, which promised Russell $3,000 to advertise the attraction says Russell didn’t follow the guidelines associated with the money — so he won’t be getting any of it.

The tourism authority says Russell failed to list them as a sponsor on any of his advertising, be it billboards or brochures. That’s a stipulation the TDA makes to anyone it doles out money to: receive TDA dollars, and TDA better get some recognition.

Russell admits he failed to read the fine print and accepts responsibility for what he says was an innocent mistake. TDA officials brought the mistake to his attention in December, after the maze had closed for the season.

“It was just an oversight I made. I guess I just overlooked that,” he said.

TDA’s refusal to refund the $3,000 is a blow to Russell, who spent more than $8,000 on advertising for the corn maze. The blow stings even more because Russell made a special effort this year to use his attraction to highlight Haywood County. The corn maze featured a bicentennial theme in honor of the county’s year-long celebration to honor its 200th year.

Russell accepts the TDA’s decision, though as a farmer struggling after a particularly bad season, the loss of $3,000 will make finances tighter.

“Well, I’ll have to be OK with it,” he said.

The chair of Haywood County’s Tourism Development Authority says a misdemeaor marijuana charge against the organization’s executive director will not affect her job status.

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

Macon County business leaders are devising a plan to ensure that the county’s lodging tax will promote tourism and travel throughout the county.

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