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Wednesday, 20 February 2013 14:12

Clear sailing ahead for Haywood room tax hike

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If anyone opposes an increase in Haywood County’s overnight lodging tax, they did not make their enmity known at Monday’s board of commissioners meeting.

The Haywood County Board of Commissioners unanimously, and without protest, agreed to send a bill to the North Carolina General Assembly asking the legislature to approve a 2 percent increase in the county’s lodging tax.

It would bring in an additional $450,000 a year and would be earmarked specifically for tourism-related capital projects, such as a tournament-caliber softball complex already being floated as a possible use for the money.

N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, and N.C. Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, have both told commissioners that they will support the bill.

The county currently tacks a 4 percent tax onto overnight lodging bills, but if approved, the tax could go up to 6 percent. It currently brings in $900,000, which is used for tourism promotions and initiatives.

Proponents portrayed the lodging tax increase as a win-win-win. It would fund special projects that the county can’t afford otherwise, help the economy by bringing in more tourists and not cost property owners anything.

“I think it is a good move,” said Commissioner Bill Upton, adding that the whole county benefits from the economic impact of tourism.

While a 6 percent lodging tax is common in coastal counties, Watauga County is the only other county in the mountains with a 6 percent room tax, the maximum allowed by the state. Jackson, Swain and Buncombe are all at 4 percent.

While there has been early talk of building a sports complex centered around ball fields, how to spend the dedicated pot of money would be vetted and decided by the Tourism Development Authority in the future.

“That could be anything from entertainment venues to doing capital improvements at the (county) fair grounds or festival grounds in Maggie Valley,” said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Tourism Development Authority. “There are just all types of things.”

The idea is similar to what Swain County did last year. The lodging tax was increased from 3 to 4 percent with the extra revenue set aside for special projects, such as a cultural heritage museum, whitewater paddling features on the Nantahala and helping the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad restore a steam engine.

Nonprofits and for-profit businesses could both apply to the Haywood TDA for a slice of the new funding. Collins said the money could even be an incentive for a business owner contemplating expansion.

Chairman Mark Swanger said he has not heard much opposition to the increase.

“I have not had one phone call,” Swanger said, adding that only three people out of about 25 “voiced reservations” about the increase at a meeting of Maggie Valley lodging owners.

The lack of resistance to the proposal is surprising given past outcries from lodging owners when Haywood County tried to up the tax. They argued that the increased tax would deter tourists from coming to Haywood County because they would not want to pay such a high tax. There are often similar protests in other counties when room tax hikes are proposed.

However, this time around, lodging owners seem to have taken a different stance, saying most visitors pay no attention to the tax rates. Lodging owners who sit on the TDA board said last week that projects funded by the additional revenue would help their bottom lines by luring more visitors to the county.

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said he was surprised not one person got up to speak against the proposal.

“Maybe they weighed the pros and cons,” Kirkpatrick said.

Commissioners emphasized at the meeting that even if the state approves the increase, it does not become automatic. It would give the county the option of hiking the room tax, but county leaders will still have to vote to actually up the tax and would be required to hold a public hearing at that point.

“It would give Haywood County the authority to consider increasing it, but there would have to be additional action,” Swanger said.

If the lodging tax is increased, the commissioners will create a new committee, subordinate to the overall TDA board, to review applications for the new pot of money. The special committee would make recommendations on which projects to fund, but final approval would be up to the TDA. Based on proposed language, county commissioners also would have some input over what projects get funded, although it is unclear from the draft version exactly how much.

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