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Chambers move closer to merger

Board members on the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce and the Maggie Valley Area Visitors Bureau voted unanimously to pursue a merger last week, a monumental move given the historical tug-of-war between the two entities.

“This is a huge step for this community,” said Leslie Merrell, board member of the Haywood chamber and owner of Adger House bed and breakfast in Waynesville. “We are more effective together than we are separately. We are consolidating talent and knowledge. That all feeds into creating the best image we can for the county.”

The idea of a consolidation cropped up just a few months ago. The Haywood Chamber and the Maggie Visitors Bureau — formerly known as the Maggie Chamber — appointed committees to explore the logistics of a merger. The prospect has met little resistance, much to the surprise of both observers and the two chambers themselves.

“I was shocked,” said Caroline Edwards, board member of the Maggie Visitor’s Bureau and owner of Miss Caroline’s Wedding Chapel in Maggie. “I felt like we would have more opposition than we did.”

Several board members attributed the directors of each entity — Lynn Collins of the Maggie Visitors Bureau and CeCe Hipps of the Haywood Chamber — with putting the big picture above turf battles and making the proposed merger feasible.

“With them leading, that has made the idea of a transition more of a reality and less objectionable,” said Marion Hammel, a board member on the Maggie Visitor’s Bureau.

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Edwards agreed.

“I really think we have two directors who are very open minded and want to see change and growth in our two areas. That has really benefited us,” Edwards said

The two boards voted unanimously to hire an outside consultant to provide ideas on how a consolidation might best work. They are hoping the county commissioners will foot the $1,800 bill for the consultant.

“I think it is a good move for Haywood County overall,” said Collins, director of the Maggie Visitor’s Bureau. “It is a big step forward in combining resources and being more efficient. It will be better for the county overall to market as a whole.”

Hipps said the two entities will be able to put more energy into promoting business and tourism in the county if they aren’t duplicating their work. Hipps points to printing and distributing tourism brochures as examples of needless duplication.

“Instead of each of us having a separate brochure, we could have one brochure that gives an overview of the whole area rather than dividing us all up,” Hipps said.

Another problem with too many cooks in the kitchen is more than one festival scheduled on the same day.

“There is so much work that goes into these things,” Hammel said. “You would be much better off saying ‘The big event this weekend is the Mater Festival in Canton,’ for example.”

Board members call the movement toward a merger a major paradigm shift.

“The goal would be to continually focus on the fact that we are promoting Haywood County not only to the outside world but from the inside looking out,” Merrell said.


It’s in the details

The two groups have yet to work out details of what a combined chamber would look like. But most envision a two-pronged chamber of commerce focusing on member services and tourism.

“The way the proposal is looking the work of the chamber would be split. One of the executive directors would be handling the business and relocation and membership and the other would be handling the convention and visitors bureau,” said Hammel.

Collins would be a natural fit to run the tourism initiatives of the new chamber, while Hipps would be a natural fit to oversee the business initiatives, according to board members involved in the merger.

“While the (Haywood) chamber is more business-development oriented, we are more tourism-oriented,” Collins said of the Maggie Visitors Bureau.

The Haywood County Chamber of Commerce conducts its share of tourism endeavors, too, however. It operates a visitor center, throws festivals, goes to travel shows, sells callers on coming to the area, and generally advertises the county as a tourist destination.

“Tourism is a part of economic development in Haywood County,” Hipps said.

But the Haywood Chamber also supports entrepreneurs, helps recruit new companies, attracts second-home owners, hosts networking functions and champions interests of the business community — functions the Maggie Visitors Bureau is not as involved in.

“We are focused on tourism, and I think CeCe (Hipps) is doing a great job in her endeavors with the Haywood Chamber,” said Wade Reece, a Maggie Visitors Bureau board member and manager of the Quality Inn in Maggie. “All we are asking her to do is pick up the same endeavors in Maggie and have her finger on the pulse of Maggie, too.”

Meanwhile, the new Haywood County Visitors Bureau would focus on tourism initiatives under Collins.


Unanswered questions

The arrangement could take one of two routes, and either could lead to problems as the details are worked out. The new Haywood Chamber could be one single organization with one board of directors and one set of members. The visitor’s bureau would operate under the umbrella of that chamber.

Others might prefer two entirely separate entities — a chamber and a visitors bureau — each with its own autonomous board of directors. Businesses would have to buy separate membership to each one.

Whether a Haywood Chamber and a Haywood Visitors Bureau are two separate entities or operate as one unit is yet to be worked out, Collins said.

If the joint chamber and visitor’s bureau are one and the same, they will likely lose money when they merge. The Maggie Visitor’s Bureau has around 200 chamber members and the Haywood chamber has 630. But many businesses are members of both. When the chambers merge, these businesses will only be paying one set of dues, not two, so it’s not as simple as adding the two budgets together.

“There is quite a bit of cross over,” Hipps said. “But in the long run it is better for the members, of course.”

A random poll of 10 members of the two chambers conducted by the Smoky Mountain News when the idea of a merger was broached a couple of months ago found overwhelming support from members to see the two groups merge. Business owners who were members of both chambers said they did not see tangible benefits from being a member of two organizations and would prefer if they could pay dues to just one. Those who were members of one but not the other also said they would like to see the two join forces so they wouldn’t have to pick.


Common ground

One thing most seem to agree on so far is that the joint chamber and visitor’s bureau would operate out of a central office, but each community would still have its own visitors center — one in Maggie and one in the Waynesville-Lake Junaluska vicinity. There are visitor centers in Canton and Balsam, too.

Some would like to see the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority move into the same office with the joint chamber. The Tourism Development Authority controls about $600,000 in tourism dollars collected through a 3 percent tax on overnight lodging. A nine-member board appointed by the county commissioners is charged with spending the money to generate more tourism. For years, the board doled out money but did not have any paid staff.

But as tourism grew, so did the pot of money. The TDA added an executive director, Scotty Ellis, and began its own program to market the county as a tourism destination.

Wade Reece, a board member on the TDA and the Maggie Visitor’s Bureau, said most functions of the TDA overlap with the chamber and could be eliminated, including their office and some of their staff.

“The TDA was designed as an oversight board of the money. It was never designed to be the marketing arm of the county,” according to Reece.

Reece said the TDA could contract with the new Haywood County Visitor’s Bureau to be the county’s tourism marketing arm. Money saved on a separate TDA staff could go toward more marketing efforts.

“I see the TDA office, the Haywood Chamber office and the Haywood Visitors Bureau being under one roof,” said Reece. “Why do we pay for three copiers, three phone systems, three computer systems? It’s a duplication of efforts. Also it is a combination of knowledge.”

The Haywood County Economic Development Commission has broached the idea in the past of locating under the same roof as the chamber of commerce and TDA as well — another detail to be worked out.

“The two chambers have come to a meeting of the minds. If the TDA and EDC are all part of this equation, then those are things that still need to be discussed and hashed out,” Merrell said. “This is not going to happen overnight. It is going to be a process.”

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