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Wednesday, 18 January 2012 14:12

Merger of Jackson County tourism entities on the table

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While a proposed room-tax hike in Jackson County has been sidelined at least for now, the idea of merging the county’s two tourism entities has been tapped for further study.

Jackson County commissioners plan to appoint a task force to study forming a single tourism agency for the county. Currently, Cashiers has its own tourism agency in addition to the countywide tourism agency based in Sylva. Each are affiliated with the chambers of commerce offices, too — one based in Cashiers and one in Sylva.

There are simply too many players involved in county tourism efforts, to hear Commission Chairman Jack Debnam tell it. He says that a single entity would be more effective and reduce costly and unnecessary duplication.

“I do believe in one (tourism authority) myself, and maybe some advisory boards,” Debnam reiterated to fellow commissioners last week. “I’d like to see us finally act like we are one county. With the people coming off the board, it’s the time to look at restructuring.”

Recent news that the long-time director of the Cashiers chamber and tourism agency, Sue Bumgarner, would retire could make such a restructuring easier. Bumgarner’s retirement will be effective in July and comes following of heightened scrutiny on how Cashiers was spending its cut of the tourism funding pie.

“It seems like an opportune time if we do want to make changes,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

In addition to Bumgarner’s retirement, there are four vacancies coming up on the Jackson County tourism board and two vacancies on the Cashiers tourism board, Wooten said.

Cashiers TTA board member Mike Henry said the board doesn’t know yet whether it will hire a replacement for Bumgarner or wait to see what the task force recommends about a merger.

“We haven’t met yet to form a plan,” he said.

While commissioners haven’t yet appointed task force members, Debnam recommended Julie Spiro, head of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, and Commissioner Mark Jones, who doubles as chairman of the Cashiers TTA; along with himself.

Jones enthusiastically endorsed Debnam’s olive-branch proposal. Jones constituents in the Cashiers area haven’t been happy about the proposed merger of the Cashiers agency into a single countywide one.

 

Room tax hike sidelined

Meanwhile, Debnam squelched the recent push for a room tax hike from 3 percent to 6 percent, however, saying it had been ill-considered.

“I would like to continue to spend some more time on this, to learn more about the impact we may have and exactly how we want to structure this,” Debnam said. “We made an error; we moved a little too fast, we were not informed enough to make the decision we tried to make.”

Debnam and his fellow commissioners faced a phalanx of outraged lodging owners in Jackson County when they passed, 4-1 with Jones voting no, to increase the tax. Commissioners subsequently rescinded that vote because they failed to hold a required public hearing.

Regardless of mistakes made and future plans to be made, finding the correct answers are critical to Jackson County’s economic wellbeing, Commissioner Doug Cody said.

“The decision was made years ago … to hang Jackson County’s economic health on travel and tourism — kind of deemphasizing” other forms of economic development, he said. “If we’re going to hang our hat on tourism, we’re going to have to get out and fight for those tourism dollars. We’ve got to make Jackson County a destination for people, not a pass through for other counties.”

Wooten said that commissioners would need to make their appointments promptly to the tourism committee to enable it to report back to them sometime this summer.

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