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Wednesday, 02 April 2014 00:00

Occupancy tax supporters hold out hope

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A tourism tax increase in Haywood County has virtually no hope of advancing in the N.C. General Assembly this year, but some of its supporters seem reluctant to fold.

Town and county leaders have implored state legislators to green light a tourism tax increase since this time last year. Hiking the tax on overnight lodging from 4 cents to 6 cents would bring in half a million extra dollars a year for tourism coffers and would be  earmarked for building or expanding tourism attractions.  

 

But objectors fought it and it lost traction in Raleigh. Local leaders have held out hope the proposal would get a second wind when the legislature reconvenes in the spring, however.

“I am hoping this will surface with some projects that will help our communities and also our tourists,” Canton Mayor Mike Ray said this week at a quarterly meeting of town boards and county commissioners.

But that’s highly unlikely, if not downright impossible, according to N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin.

“That is probably not going to happen unless we get everybody on board,” Davis said.

Davis said he is willing to the carry the ball in the Senate, but it would also have to pass the House. And there, N.C. Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, has refused to back it.

“Unfortunately, with a local bill you have to go before a committee and testify that all the local delegation is on board with that, and right now that is not the case,” Davis explained. “It is useless to go forward with that unless we have the whole delegation.”

N.C. Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, is squarely on board, but he only represents half of Haywood. The other half is represented by Presnell, so it needs her blessing, too.

While it’s not a black-and-white rule written in the General Assembly playbook, it’s an unspoken code of engagement the legislature goes by.

Davis said he has been beaten up by some members of his own party in Haywood for supporting the room tax hike, since it defies the Republican anti-tax platform.

“I am not a fan of big taxes, but I am certainly not a fan of state government telling local government what to do,” Davis said.

The room tax hike is supported unanimously by the elected leaders of all four towns and the county except one, and to go against that majority would be denying local government a semblance of self-determination, Davis said.

“I am a champion of local government,” he said, adding that if constituents aren’t happy, they can take it up with their local leaders on the ballot in the next election.

Davis initially supported the bill last year, but temporarily withdrew support when opposition mounted from the ranks of Maggie Valley lodging owners and general anti-tax advocates.

But after sizing up public sentiment, Davis ultimately concluded the vast majority of local leaders are behind the tax increase and restored his support.

 

‘Disappointing’ turn of events

The fate of the room tax hike is “disappointing,” said Ken Stahl, member of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

The tourism board discussed the dwindling prospects of the room tax hike at a meeting last week. The tax increase would address an Achilles’ Heel for Haywood’s tourism landscape: according to the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, there are not enough tourism-related attractions. 

“We are stuck, we are trying to move forward,” said Mike Sorrells, a convenience store and restaurant owner in Jonathan Creek who also sits on the tourism board. “There is a lot of opportunity to turn the corner and move forward, but we could be sitting here 10 years from now saying we need to be doing this.” 

The tourism authority hoped to create a grant fund to build new attractions or expand existing ones.

“This is specific to bricks and mortar. This is not more money for web sites,” said Mike Eveland, a tourism board member from Maggie Valley and hotel general manager. “It is something structurally that you can see. It will be there.” 

What those attractions might be is anyone’s guess. A tournament sports complex? A civic center? A water park? Lots of small grants for various venues, or one big-ticket project?

“People would be more comfortable with it if they knew what the project was,” said Teresa Smith, director of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce.

“But you can’t decide on a project until you know if the money is going to be there,” asserted Lyndon Lowe, owner of Twinbrook Cottages in Maggie Valley.

A faction of lodging owners in Maggie Valley have been credited with bending Presnell’s ear and turning her against the idea of the tax, driven by deep-seated turf battles and a long-standing paranoia that Maggie won’t get its due.

“Some people in Maggie are concerned Maggie isn’t going to get their share,” said Lowe. “But others in Maggie say Maggie needs the county as a whole working together because Maggie alone doesn’t have enough money to do projects alone.”

Sorrells agreed. They have to stop worrying someone else will get a bigger piece of the pie and join forces. He feels the decades-old dichotomy of Maggie as a tourist town and Waynesville as a factory town is over.

“It’s not like that now,” Sorrells said. “Each individual place can’t stand alone and fight each other. You have to be unified.”

Stahl said the power struggle over how to spend tourism tax dollars and who stands to gain isn’t unique to Haywood. He pointed to the tug-of-war between Cashiers and Sylva over tourism dollars in Jackson County a couple of years ago.

“It is all about control of money,” Stahl said.

James Carver, a long-time Maggie restaurant owner and member of the tourism board, said the hue and cry today is the same tune, just a different verse. Fears the room tax would backfire by deterring tourists from coming have been around for 30 years, since the first room tax was put in place.

“I heard the arguments then, but as a board member I am not doing my job if I don’t see to it that the tourism authority has the money to implement initiatives to increase tourism,” Carver said, questioning the motives of those against the tax. “It is selfish and people should get out of the way.”

But Maggie motel owner Tammy Wight said she fears county taxpayers would be left holding the bag if whatever attraction was built with tourism dollars couldn’t support itself over the long run.

“I am probably the only one here in opposition to this,” Wight admitted at the tourism board meeting.

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