The Swain County tourism board — which controls roughly $250,000 generated by a 3 percent tax on overnight lodging — is currently comprised of five members. The county appoints three of them and the Swain County Chamber of Commerce appoints the other two. Under a new plan, the number of tourism board members would increase from five to nine and the county commissioners would appoint all nine of them.
The change in the tourism board is a by-product of an attempt to increase the tax on overnight lodging from 3 to 4 percent. The extra money from the room tax increase would be used to relocate the Swain County visitor center from its current cramped quarters to a larger building on Main Street with more parking and better access.
The tax increase has to be approved by the state legislature. When the request went to Raleigh, it was discovered that Swain County’s tourism board didn’t meet the latest state guidelines governing tourism boards — namely that private groups like the chamber of commerce can’t appoint members to a board that oversees public tax dollars.
To get the room tax increase, the tourism board would have to meet the new guidelines. The tourism board was initially supportive of the room tax increase to pay for a new visitor center, but when they learned their board make-up would have to be changed as well, they pulled their support. They did not want the county to controll all the appointments on the tourism board and the chamber lose its seats.
Despite the opposition, county commissioners decided to pursue the legislation anyway. Swain is one of more than 30 counties this year that is seeking a change in room tax legislation. Kevin King, Swain County manager, said the tourism board has now gotten over their hesitation and supports the legislation again. The county has pledged to strongly consider “recommendations” from the chamber for some of the seats on the tourism board.
If Swain’s legislation passes, the existing tourism board will be dissolved and a new one appointed at the end of June. All five members currently serving could reapply for their seats on the new board.
The room tax increase will not automatically go into effect. It will merely be an option once the legislation is passed.
One mission behind the change in the tourism board appointments is to broaden the representation on the board to be more inclusive of the whole county, according to King. The current board is dominated by people in the Bryson City tourism industry. In the future, applications to serve on the board will include a question about where the person works. The larger membership on the board will also generate new and different ideas about how the $250,000 could best be spent each year to promote tourism.