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Wednesday, 10 April 2013 12:33

Parsing out a majority in Haywood room tax debate proves murky

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Without support from the Maggie Valley Lodging Association, a bill to increase the room tax in Haywood County could die in the N.C. General Assembly.

 

“It doesn’t go anywhere until there is a consensus,” said N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin.

An increase in the overnight lodging tax from 4 cents to 6 cents would net $450,000 a year. It would be dedicated solely to building and enhancing tourist attractions in the county.

A contingent of Maggie Valley lodging owners is refusing to sign on, however, and until they do, Davis has the bill parked in neutral. Exactly how many Maggie lodging owners are for or against the bill is unclear, with little more to go on than anecdotal claims and stacks of letters from both sides alleging that they represent the majority opinion.

Aside from the yet-to-be-determined number of Maggie lodging owners against the bill, all the other stakeholders in the county have given the bill their seal of approval — namely the towns of Waynesville, Canton and Clyde, the county commissioners, the county Tourism Development Authority, the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce and the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce.

All that’s left is the Maggie Lodging Association, Davis said.

“They have to get them on board,” Davis said.

But that could be an impossible standard to meet given that different factions in the Maggie tourism industry have been feuding for decades.

“I don’t think you can get 100 percent consensus from lodging owners on anything because everyone’s markets are so different,” said Lyndon Lowe, owner of Twinbrook Resort in Maggie Valley and a recent member of the tourism development authority.

There are 123 hotels, motels, inns, B&Bs, resorts, villas and cottages in Haywood County and several hundred vacation home rentals. The Maggie Lodging Association only has 42 members, and of those, some are actually in favor of the tax increase.

Based on the numbers, the ranks of those in the Maggie Lodging Association who oppose the plan are a minority of the county’s overnight accommodations, so why should they be afforded so much clout, Lowe questioned.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. A bill must pass in either the N.C. House or N.C. Senate by May 16 to stay afloat. It then advances to the other chamber for approval, but has to make it through one of the two bodies by the so-called “crossover” deadline.

If Davis doesn’t move the bill forward, the tourism tax bill will simply die. Then the county will have to wait at least two years before again trying to increase the tax.

At the moment, the official position of Maggie Valley’s town board is 3 to 1 in favor of the bill, but that is likely to change this week. Maggie Alderman Mike Matthews, who has flip-flopped between support and opposition, planned to call for a new vote at a town board meeting Tuesday night and switch his vote of record. That would make Maggie’s official position on the issue tied 2 to 2.

Matthews said he is not against raising the idea in theory.

“I am not necessarily against it,” Matthews said. “It could do a lot of good.”

But Matthews is among those who want assurances that Maggie will get a substantial voice in how the money is spent since Maggie is home to more overnight accommodations than anywhere else in the county.

 

Davis gets an earful

Critics of the proposed tax bill turned out in force to meet with Davis last Thursday, April 4, at the Haywood County Republican Headquarters in Waynesville to share their displeasure.

“They are just expressing their concerns, and I think that is terrific,” Davis said.

Davis caught some grief for introducing the bill in the first place. Davis replied that he is merely a public servant working on behalf of county stakeholders and has no agenda.

“I am sorry you have complaints, but I don’t have control over that. You have control over that,” Davis said. “The only thing I care about in this bill is it reflects what you want to do.”

One man interrupted Davis, asking him to help them beat local government and gestured toward Maggie Mayor Ron DeSimone and Haywood County Commissioner Kevin Ensley, who were both in attendance and both support the bill.

“It’s not my job to destroy local government. I refuse to do it,” Davis replied. “I told you that that bill stays in [committee] until all the interested parties in Haywood County vote on this issue.”

No formal or official vote has been taken within the Maggie lodging industry, however. Even among those who came to see Davis last Thursday, there was no hard and fast headcount of lodging owners who were against it.

About three dozen or so people were there. At least four in the crowd are on record supporting the lodging tax. Roughly half in attendance weren’t affiliated with the tourism industry, but instead oppose the measure on principle. 

“Please don’t ram this legislation through as written,” said Karen Hession, president of the Maggie Valley Lodging Association. “How do we know if it is in our best interest?”

Hession said that the bill includes no criteria for how the additional 2 cents will be distributed and no way to track whether the money actually increases tourism in the county.

“What new attraction could be built that would draw people?” Hession said.

One possible use of the new revenue proffered by tourism leaders and county commissioners is a tournament-caliber ball field complex in Jonathan Creek. While the sports complex is a ready-to-go project frequently cited as an example, there’s a wide gamut of options, from improving civic center and festival venues to grants for private tourist attractions. 

However, the vagueness of what else the money could pay for has some lodging owners worried.

“The only way I would be for it is if there was a plan that was presented to me by people who have enough sense to understand the tourism industry,” said Dale Walksler, owner of Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie.

Walksler has often lambasted the county tourism authority over the years for what he considers a misguided tourism marketing strategy. 

Like many in Maggie, Walksler would support the increase if and only if the money was under the sole control of Maggie Valley tourism interests and not the at-large countywide tourism authority. 

That seems to be a hurdle in winning over critics.

“I don’t think they trust the TDA,” said Roger McElroy, owner of Laurel Park Inn and former Maggie Valley mayor. “They don’t trust that it will be distributed fairly.”

McElroy, incidentally, supports the bill. 

Critics also complained that the higher room cost would deter tourists from coming and say the bill was rushed to introduction without input.

 

Who’s in their court?

While leaders of the Maggie Valley Lodging Association claim the majority of accommodations owners are against the tax, a formal vote among lodging owners has not been taken, so it is hard to say who is right.

The lodging association represents about 40 establishments of varying sizes — everything from a single vacation cabin to bed and breakfasts with a handful of rooms to larger motels.

Those at the helm of the lodging association are against the increase and have staked out the group’s official position as such. But several members within the Maggie Lodging Association actually support the increase, including Lyndon Lowe of Twinbrook Resorts and Robert Edwards of A Holiday Motel.

Lowe and Edwards have similar stories. They moved here from Florida in search of a better life. They bought motels with the hope of making a living and raising their young children in Maggie.

Edwards said Maggie seemed like a promising tourist town when he bought his motel six years ago.

“But in the past few years we have seen Maggie Valley deteriorate further and further and that’s not good,” Lowe said.

Declining tourism in Maggie Valley is particularly concerning to them. They are in it for the long haul, not as a hobby or source of side income in retirement like some lodging owners, Lowe said.

They aren’t the only members of the Maggie Lodging Association who in fact support the measure. Another supporter is Beth Reece of the Maggie Valley Inn and Convention Center, who sent a message to Sen. Davis voicing her support for the tourism bill. So did Jeff Smith, owner of Jonathan Creek Inn.

“It would benefit the majority of us,” said Smith, whose 44-room accommodation could easily cater to sports teams if the Jonathan Creek sports complex is built.

Smith said the size of the lodging establishment seems to sway people’s opinions on the matter. 

“I think most of the larger hotels probably see more benefit than the smaller ones do,” he said.

Similarly large accommodations, such as the Comfort Inn, Best Western, Meadowlark Motel and Smoky Falls Lodge, have also come out in support of the bill.

McElroy said waning tourism in Maggie can’t be fixed without attractions, and that’s what this bill would do.

“The reason they don’t come is we don’t have anything for them to do,” McElroy said. “I would hope that the county would complete the complex in Jonathan Creek.”

From where he stands, McElroy said the naysayers are the minority.

“I don’t think it’s a majority,” McElroy said.

Karen Hession, president of the lodging association, claims the lodging association held a vote during its February meeting and that everyone there was against it. But only about 14 or 15 were in attendance, and three were actually for it. Furthermore, the vote wasn’t a clear vote. Hession said she only asked “who here is against this?”

“I don’t remember them calling for a vote of who was for it,” said Lowe, who was at the Maggie Lodging Association meeting that day.

In addition to those in attendance, however, Hession had a list of lodging owners who opposed the bill by proxy.

“They read off all sorts of names of people who didn’t come but saying they were against it,” Lowe said.

Over the past two weeks, the Maggie Valley Lodging Association has been collecting letters from lodging owners opposed to the tax increase that could eventually offer some hard numbers.

Meanwhile, Maggie Mayor Ron DeSimone has been collecting letters from lodging owners in favor of it.

Complicating matters further, however, there’s a second lodging group based in Maggie Valley, the Haywood County Hotel and Motel Association. That entity conducted an email poll of its members in February when the tax increase first came up. The result: eight in favor and seven against. But of those in favor, four offered conditional support if guarantees were built in for how the money could be spent — namely guarantees Maggie would get the biggest voice in funding decisions.

 

What Maggie wants

To get more lodging owners onboard in Maggie, the rest of the county would have to promise Maggie the biggest seat at the table when it comes to picking what projects get funded.

Decisions would be up to special committee, spelled out in the state bill. Currently, the bill calls for a 15-member board with a composition looks like this:

• Five seats: One for each of the five zip code locales in the county: Maggie Valley, Waynesville, Lake Junaluska, Canton and Clyde

• Six seats: To be divvied up among locales according to how much room tax each collects — proportionally allocated based on room tax generated in each locale. Based on current room tax collections, Maggie would get four of these seats and Waynesville would get two.

• Four seats: To be reserved for county representatives.

The break down would give Maggie more seats on the board than other entity — 5 of the 15 seats in all — but some Maggie lodging owners fear their voice in what projects get funded would be too watered down.

Canton Town Manager Al Matthews, however, said his town would oppose a structure that gave the majority voice to any one community.

Waynesville has largely risen above the fray.

“We think it is a very good concept,” said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown. “We weren’t going to sit in there and pick at some little issue. Other people can argue about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.”

Other stipulations in the bill are:

• No single project can get more than one-third of the money in any given year. This keeps one big project from consuming all the money and ensures it is spread around.

• Bigger ticket projects could be funded upfront by taking out a loan and paying it off with the room tax proceeds in coming years, but would still be subject to the one-third cap.

— Staff Writer Caitlin Bowling contributed to this story

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