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Cashiers chamber to step up its game under new director

Don’t expect business as usual at the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce as a new director takes over for the first time in more than 20 years.

The business organization became embroiled in controversy last year amid questions about whether the agency was effectively promoting the region and spending tourism tax dollars wisely. Shortly thereafter, the chamber’s longtime director, Sue Bumgarner, announced her retirement.

New Executive Director Stephanie Edwards, a former business owner with a background in the travel and tourism industry, said she believes in measuring and tracking how well particular strategies are working.

“I’m big on justifiable, measurable performance,” she said. “I’m also a big believer in systems and in analyzing activities.”

That’s a far cry from how the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce and the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority had been run. County officials last year complained they were unable to obtain basic information about the entity’s operations from then-director Sue Bumgarner. The Smoky Mountain News was also unable to obtain basic records from the agency.

The chamber didn’t keep accurate counts of visitor center walk-ins or record how many web hits or telephone inquiries were received. Bumgarner did not keep a list readily on hand of how the Cashiers tourism arm spent its advertising budget or minutes of the group’s quarterly meetings.

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“There’s a lot of administrative improvements I’m looking forward to working on,” Edwards said.

A top priority, however, will be tracking those who inquire about visiting Cashiers.

“The technology and information is available; you can do it easily. We need to know who is interested in the area, who do we want to be interested in this area, and what avenues are most effective in reaching them,” Edwards said.

In that same vein, Edwards said she intends to conduct a marketing plan of Cashiers. As part of that, she plans to review where advertisements are currently running and why they’ve been placed in particular magazines.

“That gets to that return on investment,” she said. “Are we reaching that target audience? And how do you know that you are reaching that target audience if you don’t know who they are?”

The chamber represents more than 300 business and associate members in the Cashiers, Glenville, Sapphire and Lake Toxaway communities.

Edwards said she was not concerned about the timing of her new job, despite changes afoot that will do away with the autonomous Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority, which historically subsidized the chamber. The sister entities shared a director, staff and office.

The Cashiers TTA is poised to merge with the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority. The merger means that Cashiers will almost certainly lose control of a large chunk of change raised by a 3 percent tax on overnight lodging in the county.

Currently, the room tax is split between the Cashiers and Jackson tourism agencies. Cashiers gets 75 percent of the lodging tax generated in the Cashiers area — which amounted to $177,000 last year.

A task force has been appointed to come up with a new countywide tourism structure. So far, there appears to be agreement that the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce would continue to get at least part of what it was getting before the merger.

“I’m confident that we can work out an organizational structure that benefits everyone in the region,” Edwards said, adding that she is looking forward to partnering with Julie Spiro, the director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and tourism agency.

Cooperation between Cashiers and the rest of the county could prove key to future tourism efforts in Jackson: Cashiers previously did not share its marketing strategy or advertising campaigns with the rest of county, leaving the larger Jackson tourism entity in the dark on Cashiers’ approach to luring tourists.


Cooperation welcomed

Robin Ashmore, president of the Greater Cashiers Area Merchants Association, is excited about what she’s hearing from Edwards. Ashmore believes there could be a true partnership between the merchant’s association and the chamber and that the basic structure for such an alliance is already being put in place.

For the first time, the merchants association and the chamber are teaming up on producing a new business guide. It will contain general information on what it takes to open a business in Cashiers, such as where to go for a business license or how to get the electric and water turned on. Ashmore said she brought the idea to Edwards, and it got the immediate green light.

Edwards, Ashmore said, “is full of energy and intelligence. Plus, she’s got experience and a good head on her shoulders in marketing. In the past, the chamber probably did its best, but sometimes it’s just time for a change.”

Carol Adams of Solve-It Marketing and Promotions in Cashiers also believes Edwards could bring a new energy and a sense of urgency to tourism efforts in the community.

“I think that Sue has been a mainstay of the chamber, but a new person will bring a bit of a different perspective. And, that’s a good thing,” Adams said.

Commissioner Mark Jones, who lives in Cashiers and sits on the board of the Cashiers TTA, repeated the theme of the chamber having a different perspective in the days ahead.

“She comes to the area with fresh, new eyes,” Jones said, adding that he is particularly impressed with Edwards’ marketing and Internet skills.

Mike Henry, who serves on the Cashiers TTA with Jones, also highlighted the new chamber director’s marketing credentials.

“As we come out of the recession we need to have someone bring the community together and promote the community. That’s very important,” Henry said.


Meet Cashiers’ new chamber director

Name: Stephanie Edwards, 53

Family: Married with three sons

Last lived: Jacksonville, Fla.

Familiarity with area: Has been visiting Cashiers since she was a small child. She and her husband had planned on living here one day. “I love it. There’s something very special about this part of the country,” she said.

Background: Holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s in business administration. Owned and operated Villa Vita Home&Gift, an upscale home furnishings and accessories store. Served as director of public relations and corporate communications for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida. Worked for more than 10 years in public affairs for AAA National Office. Served as a senior congressional aide in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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