An audit two years ago sparked county officials to re-examine the allocation of the occupancy tax. The county collects the 3 percent tax from all visitors who stay at hotels, resorts or vacation rental. Last year the tax generated $141,653 for Franklin Chamber of Commerce, $243,039 for Highlands Chamber of Commerce, and $19,628 for Nantahala. The county also keeps a 15 percent administration fee, which was $71,442.
Right now county commissioners distribute the money to the Highlands and Franklin chambers of commerce, both private organizations. Dishing out taxpayer money directly to private organizations whose budgets are not public record has been interpreted by some as a violation of state law, so now county officials have proposed creating a tourism development association to distribute the revenue.
But the progress of creating the association has been stagnant until a few weeks ago. County commissioners have appointed a nine-member committee to develop a plan of action for the creation of a TDA and the allocation of the money. The committee is comprised of business leaders and town officials from Franklin, Highlands, and Nantahala.
Committee members began brainstorming for a way to distribute the tax money to best serve the county’ needs last week (Nov. 28). A majority of the committee members agreed that a tourism development association should to be formed.
“The authority would oversee the lodging tax money and would have the power to give (the chambers) the money,” County Commissioner Bob Simpson explained to committee members.
Simpson said that the tax collected from Nantahala needs to be returned to that community. In the past Nantahala did not receive any money directly since it did not have its own organization like Highlands and Franklin.
“Nantahala has never had a fair shake and should get some of that back,” Simpson said.
The small, rural community has some rental cabins and homes that are becoming more popular for those who want to vacation in a secluded area. Ron Baker, owner of Nantahala Mountain Resort, said that the community has never expected to get any of the lodging tax revenue.
“We always felt we were feeding the economy of the county,” Baker said.
In the last six months, all lodging tax generated from Nantahala has been placed in a reserve, Macon County Director of Finance Evelyn Southard said. Nantahala currently has $12,905 in reserve.
Simpson also advocated for hiring a part-time county worker to promote the county.
“We’ve got to promote,” he said. “Macon County has always been a tourist-oriented county but has never been interested in it.”
But one of the struggles with promoting the county as a whole is the marketing of its three communities. Each area is very different and attracts a different type of tourists. Visitors who go shopping in Highlands for expensive merchandise are probably not going to go gem mining in Franklin or whitewater rafting in Nantahala.
One way to remedy this situation if to create a countywide advertising campaign.
“We need to focus on advertising,” said Bob Kieltyka, Highlands Chamber of Commerce executive director. “It’s extremely important that we promote the various interests. It is critical to the success of the program and will drive tourism to the county.”
But finding a concrete solution to this problem will be one of the many issues that the committee must hash out before any money is spent.
The committee is under the gun to create the tourism development association guidelines because the budget for both chambers of commerce is at a standstill. Under the current distribution guidelines the Highlands chamber receives about $240,000 from the county’s lodging tax and the Franklin chamber receives about $140,000. Both use this money differently. In Highlands a visitor center is funded from the money, while in Franklin the chamber uses it for grants for various travel-related organizations.
The committee members developing a plan of action for a Tourism Development Authority and the allocation of the room tax dollars include:
• Bob Kieltyka, Highlands Chamber of Commerce executive director
• Linda Harbuck, Franklin Chamber of Commerce executive director
• Rick Siegel, Highlands business owner
• Ron Baker, Nantahala business owner
• Josh Drake, Franklin business owner
• Hank Ross, Highlands commissioner
• Mike Grubermann, Franklin alderman
• County Commissioner Bob Simpson
• County Commissioner Brian McClellan