Plan to buy building with room tax hike meets opposition
A push to move the Swain County Chamber of Commerce into a vacant bank building is meeting resistance from some lodging owners because of a proposed room tax increase.
The increase, which requires General Assembly approval, would pay for the former First Charter Bank building and ongoing maintenance. The Swain County Board of Commissioners approved a lease-purchase agreement last month with building owner WestCare Health Systems.
The buying price is $535,000, said County Manager Kevin King. The county’s current tax on overnight lodging is 3 percent. Raising the tax to 4 percent would result in a 33-percent hike in the current rate.
“I don’t know who hatched this, but whoever did needs to put it back in the egg and shove it into the chicken,” said Dennis White, whose family oversees 20 rental cabins across the county.
Hatching a plan
The Chamber of Commerce is currently housed at a county building on Everett Street, across Town Square from the proposed new location. King said there has been a two-year search for a new building because of the need for more space and a lack of parking.
The current chamber building, he said, might be leased to a business owner or put to some other use. King said the county “is sensitive” to not removing an additional building from the economic base of land-strapped Swain County, which is dominated by federal land holdings such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“We’re not trying to remove jobs,” he said.
The county hopes to see the chamber move to the new building April 15, he said.
Not so fast
White and three other lodging owners protested the plan at a Feb. 28 Tourism Development Association meeting held at the bank building, with others on hand to listen. Reasons ranged from protesting a possible loss of funding control by TDA to outright objection toward any additional tax hike.
“Why are we buying the county a building?” asked White, who has previously served as head of both the Chamber of Commerce and TDA. “This is an improper use of the tax money.”
White said he would not necessarily object to the levying of an additional 1 percent room tax if the money was used in what he termed an appropriate manner: to promote the county.
An additional 1 percent would bring in between $60,000 and $80,000, said Scot Warf, TDA chairman and owner of the Charleston Inn in Bryson City.
Following her worst season in seven years, Linda Parris of Smoky Mountain Retreat in the east Alarka community said her five-cabin business would be seriously injured by any tax increase. She worried that people would not book reservations if the price goes any higher.
“This is not a done deal yet,” said TDA member Monica Brown, who along with husband George owns the Fryemont Inn.
Warf agreed, telling lodge owners that he was sympathetic to many of the concerns expressed, including the possibility of ceding control of TDA funds to Swain County’s commissioners.
Warf said the TDA would form a committee that included non-board members to reviews the issues and discuss them with county officials.