Sylva might hear its local AM radio station WRGC back on the air — but the company involved wants a loan of $289,000 from Jackson County’s economic development fund to make it happen.
Roy Burnette, the CEO of the hopefully formed, embryonic 540 Broadcasting Co., said that he wants the future WRGC to intensely pursue the local part of local radio. But having said that, the geographic designation of “local” for WRGC would change, Burnette said.
Burnette wants to expand the range of WRGC allowing 540 Broadcasting to reach from east of Canton in Haywood County to Topton in Swain County — if he is able to get permission from the Federal Communications Commission for the extra power. The future WRGC would broadcast at 5,000 watts. Asked to explain the expansion of the Sylva-based radio station for the not-so-technical minded potential radio listener, Burnette suggested one mentally compare the light received from a 1,000-watt light bulb to a 5,000-watt light bulb.
“We want to offer in-depth service to Jackson, Macon, Swain and Haywood,” said Burnette on his plans for extensive regional radio reach.
Burnette has been in regional radio for years, including stints in Bryson City and Sylva. Additionally, he worked as a radio instructor for Southwestern Community College.
The Sylva radio station went dead in late August, a victim of dwindling advertising revenue dollars in a hard-knock economy. WRGC was owned by Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. If no one buys it and claims the frequency within a year, the license for that frequency would be lost.
It’s the expansion possibility, which promises a wider net of potential advertisers, that’s attracting notice at the county level.
“The 5,000-watt license is the big interest since the signal area would be substantially greater than current coverage area,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.
And that, Wooten added, would “provide an opportunity to generate significantly more advertising revenue.”
Regional radio personality and Sylva resident Gary Ayers earlier had expressed interest in buying WRGC. Ayers retreated from the idea after he said local advertising interest seemed tepid.
“I talked to the owners the other day and said if this guy can make it go, then great,” Ayers said Monday. “If not, then let me know and let’s talk again.”
Art Sutton of Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. declined to comment for now on the evolving deal.
Ayers said the most important point to him is that Sylva regains a local radio station.
“We are going to put a huge focus on community-based programming,” Burnette said.
Burnette said he hopes to have WRGC on the air by Dec. 10.
540 Broadcasting Co. submitted a request for a $289,000 loan from Jackson County. Of that, $250,000 would be used to purchase the radio license from current owner Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co., and $39,000 would be used to acquire equipment needed to install the 5,000-watt station. 540 Broadcasting would provide an additional $100,000 in working capital. Payments on the county loan would be deferred until May 2012, and then be paid over ten years (40 quarterly payments) at an interest rate of 2 percent. Jimmy Childress (WRGC’s founder) would rent 540 Broadcasting the building, equipment and property where tower is located; collateral for the loan would be the radio license and equipment.
A public hearing on the loan will be held Dec. 12 at 2 p.m. at the county’s boardroom. Commissioners are scheduled to meet that same day at 2:15 p.m. to consider the request.
Source: Jackson County
Four new landfill gas extraction wells are being drilled at the Green Energy Park in Jackson County, with the resulting energy helping to fuel craftspeople at work.
The Green Energy Park taps methane landfill gas to provide fuel for blacksmith forges and foundry, glassblowing studios, and greenhouses. Methane builds up as a byproduct of decomposing trash below ground.
The new wells to tap the landfill gas marks the first time that extensive excavation has been done at the landfill since the original dozen or so in 2005. Quality Drilling of St. Paris, Ohio, is boring the wells 70 feet deep.
“It’s important because it will allow us to maximize our gas supply here at the GEP,” said Timm Muth, director of Green Energy Park. “We’ll be able to run all of our equipment at the same time and have more artists working at the GEP creating beautiful works of art which helps to attract tourists to Jackson County — a win-win for all of us.”
Jackson County is paying $33,000 for the new wells. Several of the original wells had seen decreasing gas flow, likely indicating that the high density polyethylene well casings had become clogged with sediment, and that new wells needed to be drilled to tap the continually generating gas coming from the landfill.
“If we didn’t drill these wells the landfill gas could migrate into the ground water,” Muth said.
The Jackson County Green Energy Park is an award winning, community-scale landfill gas project located in Dillsboro. www.jcgep.org.
Renovating the old library on Main Street in Sylva for a new police department is on something of a hiatus until a new town board convenes.
The town board will get a new member following this month’s elections. Lynda Sossoman will replace current town Commissioner Ray Lewis. Sossoman said Monday that she fully supports the renovation of the old library for a town police department.
Town leaders must identify where the estimated $700,000 needed for the job will come from, interim Town Manager Mike Morgan said.
“The next thing we would want is to get an architect to do detailed plans — but (commissioners) are not there, yet,” he said.
Until then, the 15-member town police — counting only fulltime employees — will continue to squeeze into the current police department on Allen Street. The officers share just 1,000 square feet. The old library is 6,400 square feet in size.
Jackson County owned the old library, but agreed to a property swap at the town’s request earlier this year. The county gave Sylva the old library building on Main Street, and in exchange the town gave the county the former chamber of commerce building on Grindstaff Cove Road.
As takes place currently, any prisoners detained by police will be transported immediately to the county jail at the administration building instead of being held at the police department.
Sylva merchants have repeatedly requested a greater presence by town police on Main Street. In addition to the prospect of having the department located physically there, a new police officer was recently assigned to foot patrols downtown.
A brouhaha among Jackson County commissioners at a meeting last week prompted a follow-up public apology from Chairman Jack Debnam.
Debnam told The Smoky Mountain News there was a time and place for such disagreements but that the county meeting was neither the proper time nor the suitable place.
Commissioners met Nov. 14 in a special workshop to discuss funding for Smoky Mountain High School and a controversial proposed room tax hike. For the first part of the meeting, commissioners worked together in equanimity.
But when the meeting turned to a discussion of the room tax — and the equally divisive issue of whether the county’s framework for promoting tourism should be revamped — Commissioner Joe Cowan let loose with a heated verbal salvo. Cowan accused Debnam and County Manager Chuck Wooten of leaving him and fellow Democrat Mark Jones out in the cold. Cowan said they are purposely kept in the dark about issues and cut off from information.
That, in turn, sparked an exchange that put Debnam and Commissioner Doug Cody on the defensive.
Debnam and Cody told Cowan he should do more on his end, such as reading up on the county meeting agendas, getting to the meetings early or calling the other commissioners to talk.
“There should not have been an outburst like that in a public meeting,” Debnam said last week. “I’m apologizing for that happening at a board meeting. I would have liked all of that to have been handled in a more diplomatic manner.”
— By Quintin Ellison
The yippy-yappy cries of barking dogs have left Jackson County commissioners in a quandary as they face a rising tide of howls from unhappy residents.
How best to balance dog owners’ rights with residents’ growls for peace?
“I’m hoping that somebody has a magic solution out there,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said. “Because it’s a heck of a thing to figure out how to enforce.”
The county manager said that in addition to hearing multiple complaints from the public during recent county commissioner meetings, he’s received numerous emails and letters asking something be done.
Both Haywood and Swain counties have regulations governing barking dogs; Jackson and Macon do not.
Swain County, facing mounting complaints as Jackson is now, ultimately adopted state regulations that prohibit “habitual” barking dog offenders, Commissioner David Monteith said. Because as Wooten pointed out, it’s difficult to write an ordinance that commissioners will agree to pass and that is actually enforceable by local government.
“We looked at, I think, a dozen different ordinances,” Monteith said, “and couldn’t agree on any of them. We finally just adopted the state law.”
The keyword, Monteith emphasized, is “habitual.” It is an easier strategy than setting absolute limits, such as a certain time of night when no barking is allowed or a specific duration of barking that is just too much.
Haywood County’s ordinance regulates “frequent or long continued barking” that “disturbs the peace, quiet and comfort of residents of the area.”
Swain’s ordinance allows hunting dogs to bay unfettered, something that keeps local hunters happy — and they are always a strong political force to be reckoned with by local governments here in hunting-happy Western North Carolina.
But other residents weary of listening to neighbors’ dogs are pushing Jackson County commissioners hard. The latest complaint came from Margo Gray, who pleaded with commissioners earlier this month to do something. Gray, who owns three dogs of her own, is actively known for her work in the community promoting canine causes as a leader of the Western Carolina Dog Fanciers Association.
But now, Gray is entangled in a civil case with one of her neighbors in Webster, where she’s lived for 16 years, because of incessant barking by this neighbor’s dog.
“With owning a dog comes responsibility,” said Gray, who is co-owner of The Sylva Herald newspaper.
Gray said the barking, which she can hear inside her home day and night, is ruining her life.
David Young, who lives in Cashiers, couldn’t agree more. He expressed optimism this week that county workers truly seem interested in finding a solution, but that upbeat assessment was tempered by the fact he’s been complaining since 2008 on behalf of residents in Red Fox subdivision.
Young said the residents there are at their “last resort,” as is Gray, of “having to take their own legal action” against the dog owner to quiet the barking.
It shouldn’t be left to taxpaying residents to be forced into the court system to settle these matters, Young said, who added the question, “how is not acting on this helping to keep the peace?”
Wooten said he would ask County Planner Gerald Green to review dog-barking related ordinances; specifically, what might fall under the health department’s possible jurisdiction, and to consult with Sheriff Jimmy Ashe. Once Green has completed the research, he will present those findings to the county planning board to draft an ordinance for possible recommendation to commissioners, Wooten said.
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.
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.
• 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.
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.
A work session this week on Jackson County’s room tax appears to mark the beginning of open warfare and the explosive end of a fragile truce that has existed on the board of commissioners since three newcomers were elected last year.
Commissioner Joe Cowan, in a simile that would have done Homer justice, compared himself and fellow Democrat Mark Jones to “mushrooms left to grow in the dark” when it comes to having rightful access to county information.
Cowan accused board Chairman Jack Debnam and County Manager Chuck Wooten of sneaky, underhanded dealings, and of deliberately not providing the two Democrats with adequate and advanced background on issues that would enable them to make informed decisions.
Cowan has undoubtedly been in a minority on the board following a power shift in last year’s election. As for why he’s now suddenly irked by having no voice? One might possibly attribute Cowan’s anger to self-induced chagrin.
Cowan voted “yes” in October to hike the county’s room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent. In doing so, Cowan abandoned the only other Democratic Commissioner on the board, leaving Mark Jones high, dry and visibly alone — Jones was the sole “no” vote against the hike. Cowan this week, without being explicit about the exact trigger for his public outburst, seemed to blame a lack of information for his previous, and apparently now regretted, support.
“In nine years on this board I’ve never experienced this before,” a bucked-up Cowan told his fellow board members, his face reddening. “And I resent the hell out it.”
“The chairman doesn’t communicate with me, this gentleman doesn’t communicate with me,” Cowan said gesturing toward Wooten, who was hired in place of longtime Manager Ken Westmoreland when the new board took over.
“If you’d come to the office more than 15 minutes before the meeting, you might know what was happening,” Debnam said in reply.
Cowan said that in his previous years on the board, information flowed to commissioners via copious emails and written communications.
“I’m just saying it’s not right,” Cowan said.
Wooten, after the meeting, maintained that he regularly emails four of the commissioners, including Cowan. Commissioner Charles Elders does not use email; he receives written documentation of county business, the county manager said.
Debnam again asserted that if Cowan doesn’t know what’s going on, it’s his own fault for not putting much effort into staying informed.
“You need to call me every once in a while,” Debnam shot back at Cowan during the lengthy exchange.
“I don’t know what to call you about, because I don’t know what you are doing,” Cowan said.
Commissioner Doug Cody wryly suggested that Cowan consider checking the upcoming agendas for board meetings as the other commissioners do.
Cowan told news reporters after the meeting that he believes he and Jones are being shutout of the information flow because they are in the minority.
“Hell, I’m the minority party,” Debnam said when asked if he was, as accused, persecuting Democrats by withholding information they need and are rightfully entitled to have.
Debnam is a conservative-leaning Independent who won election, at least in part, through the use of GOP advertising dollars. The other two members of the five-man board, Doug Cody and Charles Elders, are bona fide registered Republicans.
Elders and Jones were silent during the verbal brawl.
The proposed tax increase has been rescinded because of a failure to hold a required public meeting. This time lapse, in turn, has allowed outraged Jackson County lodging owners an opening to express strong opposition. They have said an additional tax burden imposed in such a sour economic climate could put some of them out of business and severely damage the bottom lines of everyone in the lodging industry reliant on tourist dollars (see accompanying article).
Jackson County is nowhere close to cementing a deal with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad — one that would offer financial incentives in exchange for basing a steam engine tourist train in Dillsboro.
“It is far from a done deal,” said County Manager Chuck Wooten.
The county and the train have yet to agree on key factors.
The heart of the matter is a restored 1913 steam engine and passenger cars the railroad would like to put in service. But there’s a problem. The train is in Maine, and moving it here would cost $430,000, the railroad’s owner Al Harper estimates.
Harper wants the county to chip in half the cost of moving the train, as well as help secure an outside grant to build a turntable and a standing commitment to help with advertising costs.
Discussions have been informal and intermittent since last winter. The deal is primarily being brokered by a Dillsboro business owner and town board member, David Gates, who is acting as a de facto intermediary between Harper and county officials.
Gates recently drew up a draft contract and passed it around to the various parties. Harper lives out of state, but came to town for the train festival in Bryson City in late September. Gates took him a copy — and Harper promptly signed it.
The draft is not a version the county would endorse right now, however, and Wooten was flummoxed as to why Harper would have signed it prematurely.
There’s a key component missing, from the county’s perspective. Jackson County wants a written guarantee the steam engine would be based in Dillsboro for at least five years — not Bryson City, where the rest of its trains depart from.
“We want it to originate in Dillsboro, turn around in Bryson City and run back to Dillsboro,” Wooten said.
Shops would benefit more if people boarded and disembarked in Dillsboro, rather than merely rolling into town for a 90-minute layover before loading back up and heading out.
The trip from Bryson City to Dillsboro and back lasts four hours total, including the layover. Tickets start at $49 for adults and $29 for children age 2 to 12.
Dillsboro was once the main depot for the train, but the headquarters were moved to Bryson City in 2005. Then in 2008, the train yanked service to Dillsboro completely before partially restoring it the following year.
“When the train left, they lost a lot of traffic,” Wooten said of Dillsboro merchants.
County leaders are skittish that could happen again and want an assurance built into the contract. To pass muster with the county, the contract would have to require the train to keep the steam engine based in Dillsboro for five years. If it is moved elsewhere, the railroad would have to pay back a portion of the county’s grant, Wooten said.
Ideally, the train would promise to run a certain number of trips — such as two a day during summer and fall, and once a day during winter. But the county can’t expect the railroad to make such a commitment not knowing what the demand will be.
The draft contract circulated by Dillsboro stipulated that operations of the steam engine would be based in Dillsboro. But it also stated that “only the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad will have complete authority as it relates to all scheduling and operations of the train set originating out of Dillsboro.”
Such a disclaimer could make enforcement difficult if the railroad ever broke the promise.
Wooten also said if a deal was ever agreed on, the county would shy away from writing a check directly to the railroad. Instead, the county would want an invoice from the company involved in moving the steam engine and would pay it directly.
A must-have for the train to bring a steam engine to Dillsboro is a turntable, a piece of track that can be spun around to get the engine pointed back the right way when it reaches the end of the line.
The train apparently can’t afford the $200,000 to build one. The tiny town of Dillsboro can’t either. But the town will apply for a grant to cover the cost. A lot is riding on the outcome of that grant.
“No turntable, no steam engine,” Wooten said. “That would be a deal killer.”
The train currently runs on diesel engines. When the engine reaches the end of the line on excursions, it goes in reverse until it gets back to the depot in Bryson City.
Steam engines can’t go in reverse for long distances, however, making the turntable critical. The steam engine would run from Dillsboro to Bryson City, so another turntable would have to be installed there.
A turntable in Bryson City has been discussed for years. In 2005, the train got a $7.5 million low-interest loan from the Federal Railroad Administration, in part to construct turntables in Bryson City and Dillsboro. “How many years ago was that and where is the turntable?” asked Hanneke Ware, an inn owner in Jackson County who doesn’t think the county should give the railroad a grant. Wooten said the train apparently purchased the turntables but never installed them.
A portion of that loan was also for repairs to the track. But the majority was used to restructure existing debt that had a higher interest rate.
That existing debt and federal loan is one reason the railroad wants grants — not more loans — to move the steam engine and for the turntable. Wooten was told by the railroad that it lacked the collateral to take on additional debt right now.
The train has also asked for money for advertising from the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority — tapping into the pot of money raised from a tax on overnight lodging in the county. The train initially asked for $150,000 a year, but has since revised the request to an unspecified amount of advertising on the train’s behalf, specifically for marketing the steam engine service from Dillsboro.
Opponents to a proposed room tax increase in Jackson County are accusing county leaders of secretly earmarking the money for a grant to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
“If this is about raising funds to get the railroad to move back to Dillsboro, then we are against it,” said Hanneke Ware, owner of the Chalet Inn, at a public hearing on the room tax increase this week. “It is not right to increase the accommodation taxes in a county as widespread as Jackson to provide marketing money to a private business.”
The scenic tourist railroad has asked the county for as much as half a million dollars in exchange for offering steam engine train service to the tourist village of Dillsboro.
The train, once headquartered in Dillsboro, cited the flagging economy when it pulled out in 2008. Dillsboro’s galleries, gift shops and restaurants were thrust into a tailspin over the sudden loss of 60,000 tourists annually.
While the train has since brought limited passenger train service back to Dillsboro, business owners worry the train won’t stick around and still pine for the same level of foot traffic they once enjoyed.
County Commissioner Mark Jones, who spoke to commissioners during the public hearing in his capacity as head of the Cashiers Area Travel and Tourism Authority, said if a tax increase is needed to help the train, perhaps Dillsboro should levy it. In Macon County, Jones pointed out, the county levies a 3 percent tax and the town of Franklin levies an additional 3 percent tax there.
County leaders say there is no connection between the proposed room tax increase and the financial assistance being sought by the railroad.
“We don’t have a motive,” said Commission Chairman Jack Debnam.
Anyone who thinks the room tax increase is aimed at raising money to give the railroad is misinformed, Debnam said. The county has bandied the idea around but is not close to a deal, Debnam said. (see related article)
Several speakers opposing the room tax hike believe there is a connection, however.
“Why are they asking the county for money?” Ware asked.
She said the railroad should do what other businesses do when expanding: namely, get a bank loan.
“Is it because they don’t have collateral?” Ware asked. “If they can’t get a loan, why would the county want to put money into a business whose financial plans are tenuous?”
Henry Hoche likewise questioned why the tourist railroad needs money from the county.
“To me it makes no sense why the railroad isn’t paying for it itself,” said Hoche, owner of Innisfree Inn By-the-Lake in Glenville.
Giving tax money to private business in exchange for creating jobs isn’t exactly a new concept. Incentives to land new industry are common at the state level, and counties often get in the game by offering tax credits to lure new companies offering jobs.
Jackson County has a revolving loan fund designed to help businesses moving to or expanding in Jackson County. Al Harper, the owner of the railroad, previously estimated 15 to 20 news jobs would be created under his plan to base a steam engine train in Dillsboro — a plan predicated on financial help, however.
County Manager Chuck Wooten said the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad steam engine project would not create enough jobs to qualify for the size of the revolving loan request, however.
It wouldn’t matter anyway, Wooten said, because the railroad has since told him it can’t take on any more debt.
Spin-off jobs created by other businesses, such as the tourist-oriented shops in Dillsboro, wouldn’t count toward the job creation quota the railroad must meet, Wooten said.
The scenic railroad wants to base trips on a restored 1913 steam engine and rail cars in Dillsboro, but there’s a hitch. The train is in Maine, and it would cost more than $400,000 to move it down to Dillsboro, the railroad estimates. It wants the county to split the cost, plus pony up money to help advertise the new steam engine service.
Currently, tourism tax dollars can only go to marketing and advertising, not to hard costs like steam trains. The narrow criteria were imposed by the state in the 1980s when counties first began charging lodging taxes.
A few years ago, the law changed. Room tax can now fund “tourism-related expenditures,” which can include walking trails, festival bleachers, boat docks, or perhaps a stream train — anything that would presumably lure tourists. The state allows up to one-third of a county’s room tax dollars to go toward such “tourism-related expenditures.”
If Jackson County wants this flexibility, however, it has to adopt new language at the local level reflecting that. It has become part of the discussion over whether to increase the room tax, along with revamping the tourism oversight agency that controls the money.
Clifford Meads, general manager of High Hampton Inn in Cashiers, doesn’t like the idea of tourism tax money going to projects instead of strictly promotions.
“There will be people dreaming up projects so they can spend the money,” Meads said.
Meads said shipping money from other parts of the county to help Dillsboro is “going to be divisive.”
Cashiers business owners led the charge against a proposed tax increase on overnight lodging in Jackson County during a public hearing this week.
Several lodging owners complained that tourism is already down because of the economy. Asking tourists to pay a higher tax when they are reluctant to travel in the first place is adding insult to injury, they argued.
“This is our bread and butter,” said Richard Hattler of Mountain Lake Rentals in Cashiers, adding that a tax increase in these times of economic hardships is “insane.”
SEE ALSO: Is room tax hike aimed at helping scenic railroad?
George Ware of Chalet Inn said tax increase would represent an “ill-advised action at the worst-possible time.”
About 40 people packed the hearing before county commissioners, with a dozen speaking out against the tax increase.
“You are going to negate the efforts of the tax itself,” said Judy Brown, president of the Greater Cashiers Area Merchants’ Association. “I think this is going to end up blowing up in our faces.”
Jackson leaders have proposed doubling the room tax from 3 to 6 percent. The room tax raised $440,000 last year, which is pumped back into tourism promotions.
The extra revenue from the proposed tax increase should mean more money to market Jackson County as a destination, which in turn should increase tourism. That’s something supporters say Jackson County sorely needs.
Overnight stays have declined by 12 percent in Jackson since 2006. Jackson has fared worse on the tourism front than other counties and has failed to rebound as well as its neighbors.
But a room tax increase is the wrong approach, opponents argued. It would put Jackson’s room tax higher than surrounding counties: Haywood and Transylvania are at 4 percent, while Macon and Swain are at 3 percent.
Tourists are already penny pinching as it is. Industry-wide, lodging owners note a major trend in how visitors book their trips these days.
“It is a last minute reservation, they want only one night, they want a discount, and they want the bottom line of how much it is going to cost,” said Michelle McMahon, owner of Mountain Brook Cottages for more than 30 years.
McMahon claims tourists are savvy enough these days to ask about extra taxes and fees, factoring the total cost — not just the advertised nightly rate — into their decision about where to stay.
“They compare, compare, compare,” McMahon said. “Nobody truthfully cares this is Jackson County. They just want to come to the mountains.”
Mary Korotwa, owner of Cashiers Resort Rentals, said the county is barking up the wrong tree in its quest for more tourism tax money. Instead, the county should be tracking down people who rent out their mountain homes and cabins to vacationers under the radar without levying the tax and remitting it to the county.
“You are leaving money on the table,” Korotwa said. “There are legions of homeowners in the county renting their own properties who are not paying the tax.”
Opponents overwhelmingly hailed from the Cashiers area. None of the county’s large chain hotels showed up.
That led County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam to wonder whether opposition to the rate hike is shared by the majority in the tourism industry. Debnam said the goal is to help tourism, not hurt it.
“We are trying to figure out how to promote Jackson County,” Debnam said. “We’ve got to be able to do a better job than we’ve been doing.”
Controversy over the room tax increase has opened other wounds in the county. One is whether tourism tax revenue should continue to be divvied up between two tourism entities — the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority and a separate Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority.
Both of those contract with either the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and Cashiers Chamber of Commerce to carry out on-the-ground tourism marketing. Manning a visitor center, answering phones, mailing out brochures, placing ads in magazines or on billboards, managing a travel web site — all these functions are carried out by the respective chambers of commerce rather than an explicit county travel and tourism staff.
The county has floated the idea of merging the separate Jackson and Cashiers tourism agencies into a single countywide tourism authority. The chambers of commerce fear they could lose their starring role — and their cut of the room tax revenue — under a new structure.
Robert Jumper, chairman of the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority, spoke up for the vital role played by the Jackson chamber when it comes to tourism.
The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce has the skills, knowledge and expertise to orchestrate tourism promotions on behalf of the county, Jumper said.
“We want our voice to be heard,” Jumper said, adding that any new countywide entity should honor the existing arrangement with the chamber
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Debnam said not to worry. He said the two chambers of commerce would, in all likelihood, remain the go-to entities for carrying out the scope of tourism work.
“I think there is a big misconception about what is going to happen,” Debnam said.
Commissioners didn’t offer any comments of their own following the hearing. They will hold a work session to talk about what to do at 1 p.m. Monday, Nov. 14, in the county administration building. The earliest they would vote is at their next formal meeting on Nov. 21.
The commissioners previously voted 4 to 1 on their intent to increase the room tax, but that was prior to such backlash from Cashiers lodging owners. One commissioner is rumored to have changed his mind.
Meanwhile, lodging owners fighting the tax continue to rally their forces. They are forming a Jackson County Accommodations Association “to strengthen our voice,” said Henry Hoche, owner of Innisfree Inn By-the-Lake in Glenville.
As for a compromise, such as increasing the tax to only 4 percent as neighboring Haywood and Transylvania have done, Hoche wasn’t interested. A more modest increase from 3 to 4 percent would bring in another $115,000 a year to bolster tourism efforts. But it simply isn’t needed, Hoche said.