A task force studying whether Jackson County should revamp its approach to luring tourists began laying the groundwork last week to merge its two separate tourism agencies into one.
In coming months, the task force will wrestle with the best make-up and structure for a single countywide tourism development authority, which will control roughly $440,000 generated by a 3-percent tax on overnight lodging.
Jackson County currently has one tourism agency representing the Cashiers area and one tourism agency representing Jackson County as a whole. Supporters of that concept have argued Cashiers needs its own tourism agency — with control of its own dollars — to cater to its own unique tourism needs. Opponents have argued that having two groups is a waste of money and resources and is less effective.
Clifford Meads, manager of High Hampton Inn in Cashiers, suggested a makeup for the new entity that guarantees Cashiers a nearly equal number of seats on the board.
Meads tendered a proposal calling for an 11-member board, with five seats designated for tourism representatives from the Cashiers area. Specifically, he suggested six representatives from lodging businesses, three of which would hail from Cashiers; one tourism-related business representative from Cashiers and one from Sylva; one chamber of commerce representative from Cashiers and one from Sylva; plus a county commissioner designee. A chair would be selected from within the group.
The proposal received nods of general agreement from other task force members, though the exact makeup is clearly a long way from being decided.
Robert Jumper, manager of Travel and Tourism for Cherokee and chairman of the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority, emphasized that he believes it critically important that the chamber directors be on the future tourism development authority board, too. They currently serve on the Cashiers and Jackson County boards that are in existence.
“From my perspective, I saw a huge value in having the executive directors there to give us the staff perspective,” Jumper said. “In some capacity there needs to be that input.”
For now, Jackson County most likely will temporarily merge its two tourism agencies into one. There is a sense of urgency following revelations that Jackson County is out of compliance with a state law mandating that a single entity oversee room tax expenditures. Moving forward with a temporary merger for now will give county leaders until next year to hammer out the specific makeup of a permanent, future tourism development authority for the county, County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said.
While a task force comprised primarily of lodging owners has been appointed to make recommendations, county commissioners ultimately have the final say. A vote on combining the two tourism boards into an interim tourism development authority is likely to take place at the county commissioners’ meeting Monday.
Attorney Jay Coward said, like Debnam, he believed that the county needed to come into compliance with state law quickly and continue hammering out actual details about the new board.
“I think what y’all are doing is exactly what you ought to be doing,” he assured task force members in their discussions at last week’s meeting.
Look to the east?
Having to balance competing geographic interests isn’t unique to Jackson County. Haywood County, for example, had an ongoing tug of war over tourism dollars between Waynesville and Maggie Valley for years. To resolve these differences, the tourism board there was expanded from nine to 12 members about four years ago.
The board is representative of various geographic areas in the county.
Additionally, a portion of tourism tax dollars are earmarked to individual communities to spend as they see fit, yet another effort aimed at ending the tug of war and turf battles over the room tax money. Of the county’s 4 percent room tax, 1 percent is earmarked for special tourism initiatives in the different geographic areas of the county.
The special pot of money is divvied up among the county’s five “zip code” communities based on where it was collected, said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority. The TDA collects and administers the money, but each community has a subcommittee that accepts and review applications for dollars. The subcommittees make recommendations to the full TDA, which pretty much rubberstamps them, Collins said
“It seems to be working well,” she said, adding that the communities have “flexibility” to spend on things they feel are important and can pinpoint “what’s most needed as is related to tourism. It’s kind of like a grant program,” Collins said in explanation.
Meads said he believes the mandate for a single tourism development authority could be a good thing for Jackson County because “it forces us to come to agreement” on various tourism-related issues.
“We can craft something for ourselves” and not be “pigeon-holed” with another county’s format, Meads added.
As in Haywood County, composition of the new board in Jackson County will be key.
How we got here from there
Jackson County for months has been struggling to sort out how best to spend its room tax dollars, and how to best balance competing geographic interests in the county.
Jackson County currently has one tourism agency representing the Cashiers area and one tourism agency representing Jackson County as a whole. The members oversee the annual 3 percent room tax money collected from the lodging industry. The amount isn’t small potatoes: each year about $440,000 is collected, which is pumped back in to tourism promotion.
Seventy-five percent of the room tax generated in the Cashiers area currently goes back to that community’s tourism group to spend on its own marketing. Supporters of that concept have argued Cashiers needs its own tourism agency — with control of its own dollars — to cater to its own unique tourism needs. Opponents have argued that having two groups is a waste of money and resources.
Whether to merge the county’s two tourism groups into a single countywide entity has been a source of ongoing controversy since last year. The debate essentially ended earlier this month, however, when the county discovered that its current structure doesn’t comply with state law.
The county, by seeking an increase in its room tax rate from 3 to 6 percent last year from the General Assembly, triggered the mandate to form a single tourism development authority. 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 as Jackson did.