Tie match called in Jackson visitor center firestorm
After a tumultuous start to hashing out a blueprint for this year’s finances, the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority reached a moment of harmony last week when its members unanimously adopted a budget.
“In the end, we reached a compromise,” said Debby Hattler, a member of the tourism authority’s finance committee. “I think it’s something we can move forward with.”
Dissention began in May in a tiff over how much each of the county’s visitor centers should get from the pot of tourism tax dollars. Tempers flared when Chairman Clifford Meads took action to thwart part of a funding increase destined for the Cashiers Area Visitor Center as part of a preliminary budget.
Lively debate among board members and a heated public meeting in Cashiers ensued — one which drew a full house in support of giving the Cashiers Area Visitors Center its due.
But all the turmoil was behind the board last week when TDA members moved a compromised version of the budget forward, one that divvies up the funds more or less equally between visitor center operations based in Sylva and Cashiers and even sets aside a separate pot of money for Dillsboro’s.
When the compromise budget came to a vote, and nobody spoke in opposition, Meads shared his obvious relief with the crowd.
“Opposed…?” Meads asked, glancing around the table for dissenters but finding none. “Thank God.”
An early draft of the TDA budget would have awarded a roughly $20,000 increase for Cashiers’ visitor center operations, from $60,000 to more than $80,000. The increase was intended to bring the funding for the Cashiers visitor center in line with the Jackson visitor center in Sylva.
Meads, however, altered the budget crafted by the tourism authority’s finance committee. He reduced the amount slated for the Cashiers visitor center, giving it an increase of only $8,000. He argued that the limited pot of tourism dollars would be better used in advertising and promotion of the county as a destination.
That touched off a firestorm on two fronts. One issue was the merit of the matter: how much funding was the Cashiers visitor center entitled to? The other issue was procedural: why hadn’t the tourism authority followed a better budget process?
Meads misstepped when unilaterally editing the draft budget outside the purview of the finance committee or full tourism board.
He took the brunt of the blame for acting outside the proper board protocol. But that wasn’t the board’s only growing pain. In another faux pas: The budget never came before the full tourism board for a vote after the finance committee crafted it. And the tourism board failed to hold the required public hearing on its budget, forcing it to pass an interim budget for the month of July.
“The last month or so wasn’t the prettiest thing to see, but it probably was necessary,” Meads said. “Now our budget is set; our focus is reset; let’s drop the armor and move on.”
In the compromise brokered last week, the Cashiers visitor center got an increase of $14,000 — less than was originally propose but more than Meads had proffered. In fact, it was right in the middle of the two.
Cashiers Area Chamber of Commerce President Ken Fernandez and Hattler, both of whom had rallied the troops to demand equitable funding for the visitor center in Cashiers, ultimately supported the compromise budget.
The funding increase awarded to the Cashiers visitor center now puts it on par with what the Jackson visitor center in Sylva gets. But whether Cashiers’ center actually deserves an equal cut of tourism dollars has not been addressed head on.
It is, no doubt, a sensitive issue. The creation of a single countywide tourism authority earlier this year was supposed to bridge the historical divide between Cashiers and Sylva tourism interests, but it hasn’t happened overnight. The tourism board has shied away from a genuine analytical discussion of the funding formula.
The Jackson visitor center serves greater numbers, and is a clearinghouse of tourism information for the entire county, including Cashiers. It’s run by the Jackson Chamber of Commerce.
The Cashiers visitor center, on the other hand, serves a more narrowly focused geographic area. It’s run by the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce.
Nonetheless, Cashiers tourism interests felt slighted for getting less. Tourism board members who aren’t from Cashiers apparently felt it was worth going to the mat over.
Some, it seemed, were tired of the hue and cry such a small percentage of the TDA budget had cause and the fact it was impeding progress for the fledgling board.
“$6,000 is really minute,” said Board Member Mickey Luker, owner of the Caney Fork General store in Cullowhee.
The entire tourism authority budget is about $600,000 a year, raised through a 4 percent tax on overnight accommodations. The countywide tourism authority was just formed in January with the mission of focusing the county’s tourism strategy on the whole county rather than individual geographic areas.
The adopted budget now earmarks a separate pot of $6,000 in operating costs plus $3,000 or so in recent and utilities for the Dillsboro visitor center. Before, Dillsboro’s visitor center funding was lumped in with funding for the Sylva visitor center, since both were run by the Jackson chamber, but it falsely inflated the perceived inequity between Cashiers and Sylva.
Pulling their weight?
Although Meads is still skeptical about funding visitor centers as a viable means of boosting tourism, he said the reality was that compromise and unity needed to be found to keep the board on track. At the center of the hailstorm over the visitor center funding, Meads saw firsthand how distracting it could be.
The tourism authority played catch up last week — finally holding the required public hearing on the budget before adopting it. Several proponents of visitor center funding took the opportunity to make their case.
Jane Ebberts said she and her husband stopped in at the Cashiers visitor center in 1997 to start their trip to the area.
“The first place we came to was the visitor center in Cashiers,” she said.
She ultimately moved to the area and is now on the board of directors for the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce and a Realtor.
But the tourism industry and the game of attracting visitors has changed during the past 15 years. George Ware, owner of the Chalet Inn outside of Dillsboro, said it was understandable for the board not to make drastic cuts to visitor center funding the first year out of the gate with the new countywide tourism authority.
However, if that kind of money — roughly $160,000 in public funds — is being handed over to private chambers of commerce to operate visitor centers, there needs to be accountability and transparency.
Ware said he’d like to see the money tracked, as well as proof that visitor center operations actually promote tourism in the area. This way, when the debate surfaces again next year, residents of Jackson County know that it’s well spent.
“You just don’t say, ‘Here’s money, go do it,’” Ware said. “You’ve got to be able to see where it is. How are you going to measure performance?”
News editor Becky Johnson contributed to this story.