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.”
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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.”
Finding the best way
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.