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Tourism board divided over festival funding

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority is split over a budget for the coming fiscal year that would reduce funding for festivals and local chambers of commerce and instead put the money toward a marketing plan.

Grant money doled out for festivals was reduced from $39,000 to $24,500 for the coming fiscal year — a 38 percent budget cut. Haywood expects to collect more than $630,000 from a tourist tax on overnight lodging. The cut reduces festivals to about 3 percent of the tourism authority’s budget. It is not an abnormal amount, but it is on lower end of what other communities set aside. While Buncombe spends none on festivals and several are in the 3 percent range like Haywood, others spend from 5 to as much as 20 percent of tourism tax dollars on festivals.

While the festival budget cut has caused the most stir, there are larger cuts afoot. The tourism authority gives the Maggie Valley Visitor’s Bureau (formerly the chamber of commerce) grants every year to cover its operating costs, including staff and overhead. The Maggie Visitor’s Bureau saw its funding from the tourism authority slashed from $65,000 to $20,000 for the coming fiscal year — accounting for a third of the visitor bureau’s total budget.

Tourism board members who support the change say they can put the money to better use luring visitors to the county.

“There are only so many dollars we take in,” said Ken Stahl, member of the tourism board. “It is not an easy decision to make.”

Critics of the tourism authority have spent much of the past year blasting the tourism board for not spending more on marketing to get Haywood County’s name out.

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“You can’t have it both ways,” Tom Halsey, a tourism board member, told the disgruntled audience at a meeting three weeks ago when the new budget strategy was announced. “You can’t ask for more money to be spent globally and then also want more money to be spent locally. You can only spend a dollar so many times.”

The tourism authority will put an extra $100,000 toward an overall marketing strategy this year. Cuts came only partly from festival funding. The biggest cut was $45,000 cut from the Maggie Visitors Bureau used for operating costs. Downtown Waynesville Association saw a $3,500 cut in money it used for Web site development, branding and brochures. The Haywood County Chamber of Commerce saw at least $6,000 in cuts it used to pursue its own line of tourism promotion, from printing brochures to attending travel shows. The tourism authority also eliminated a staff position in its own office.

Halsey said some of these things the chamber and visitors bureau did with the money will now be done in-house by the tourism authority, from billboards to advertising festivals.

“It becomes a question whether it is something that should be promoted by tourism development authority or whether the money should be given to one of the individual chambers to go ahead and market,” Halsey said.

But not all tourism board members agreed. The cut in funding for the Maggie Visitors Bureau and Haywood Chamber was announced just six weeks before the start of the fiscal year, giving the entities little warning to shift gears.

“This will be devastating to the local groups who have had plans made for this coming year. The summer is here on us,” James Carver, a tourism board member, countered at that same meeting. Carver recommended funding festivals and the Maggie and Haywood chambers at the same level as last year.

Tourism board member Sonja Michaels called the last-minute cuts unbelievable.

During a public comment session, Carroll Burrell, president of the Haywood County Hotel and Motel Association, said the closing of Ghost Town — an amusement park that served as an anchor attraction in Maggie for decades — has made festivals an important tool to fill the void and offer tourists things to do.

“We need that seed money,” Burrell said. “If we knew we were on a transitional plan we could all start really thinking about the other options that are out there. That flash cut has left us all in shock.”

Tammy Brown of Cataloochee Ski Area said she looked forward to more money being spent on marketing, but not at the expense of festivals.

“Without tourism product development and without funding for special events, what exactly will we be advertising?” Brown asked.

Natalie Nelson, a Maggie Valley lodging owner, questioned how many tourists come here specifically to attend a festival they saw advertised, or whether they merely go to festivals once they are here.

“They are coming for a variety of other reasons hopefully having to do with the area itself,” Nelson said.

The tourism board received grant requests totaling $217,000 this year — more than one-third of all tourism tax collections. In addition to requests from the Haywood Chamber and Maggie Visitor’s Bureau, there were also requests from other entities putting on events.

• $12,000 from Autoshows Motorsports event for various motorcycle, car and truck rallies.

• $16,500 from Downtown Waynesville Association for a brochure, Web site expansion, a festival and branding efforts.

• $24,000 from the town of Canton for a month-long centennial celebration

• Numerous $1,000 to $3,000 grants from private entities putting on single festivals, such as Vettes in the Valley, Smoky Mountain Folk Festival, a pool tournament to benefit disabled adults, and the Haywood County Fair.

But the $217,000 in grant requests wasn’t just for festivals.

The Maggie Valley Visitors Bureau requested more than $28,000 to put ads in magazines and on billboards advertising Maggie Valley. Another $30,000 was for a festival director. The Haywood Chamber also requested $30,000 for a festival director. None of these requests were approved.

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