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Proponents of Haywood room tax increase rebut criticism

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority board responded to outcries from Maggie Valley business owners about a proposed lodging tax increase during its meeting last week.

Several business owners in Maggie voiced their collective concerns about the possible increase at a town meeting two days prior. A portion of the meeting was spent correcting misperceptions about the matter.

Rob Edwards, a member of the TDA board, said the tourism authority could have done a better job educating people about the proposed lodging tax increase.

“Whose fault is that? Who takes responsibility for lack of education and factual errors?” asked Edwards, who owns A Holiday Motel in Maggie Valley.

The town boards of Canton and Waynesville both passed resolutions supporting the increase. But the Maggie aldermen’s vote was split 2-to-2, meaning the board will neither officially support nor oppose the lodging tax increase.

Maggie Valley Mayor Ron DeSimone has been open about his support of the increase. He said he would work to convince Aldermen Phillip Wight and Mike Matthews, the two nay votes, to change their mind. DeSimone added that the new revenue stream could benefit the valley’s revitalization efforts.

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“If not this, then what?” he said. “You can’t do anything without money.”

Wight stated that he and Matthews could not agree to back the proposed increase without more specifics.

“This 2 percent occupancy tax has been submitted before us without detailed planning,” Wight said. “It does not say what the monies could or could not be used for.”

Maggie lodging owners, who collect more than 50 percent of lodging tax revenue from tourists each year, have argued that a portion of the room tax increase should be earmarked for projects specifically benefitting Maggie Valley.

“‘We deserve it all.’ I think I heard that ‘til my ears bled,” said Al Matthews, Canton Town Manager and a tourism board member.

Mark Swanger, chairman of the Haywood County commissioners who supports the room tax increase, said room tax collected from tourists spending the night in Maggie doesn’t belong to the Maggie hotel and motel owners.

“It is not their money. The fact of the matter is they are collecting tax money, and it is supposed to be for the good of the whole county,” Swanger said. “It has to be the whole county pulling together. We can’t be so narrow-minded.”

The room tax increase is being billed as a way to fund tourism-related capital projects, such as a sports tournament complex, facility improvements at event venues or grants for private tourist attractions. It would bring in an additional $450,000 at the current room tax collection rate.

The bill as written would prevent the majority of the money from being tied up on any one project. It would limit funding for any single project to no more than one-third of the annual revenue generated by the increase. It would also limit funding for any one project to a maximum of 10 years.

“Any one group is not going to get all the money,” Matthews said.

Maggie Valley business owner and TDA board member Lyndon Lowe said it’s not off base for Maggie to want the share of money it collects to be reinvested in town ventures.

“It’s not totally unfair for them to think that,” Lowe said.

TDA board member Ken Stahl pointed out that the 12-member tourism board currently has seven representatives from Maggie. The TDA board will have final say over what projects to fund.

A separate committee would be appointed to make recommendations, however.

“We are the ultimate control. We are the ones who have the funding say so,” Stahl said of the TDA board.

Initially, which projects to fund were going to be made “in concurrence with the county commissioners.” The vague wording would have opened the door for the Haywood County Board of Commissioners to have some input on which projects got funded, but it will not be included in the final bill.

County commissioner and TDA board member Mike Sorrells said he and other commissioners want to play a role in the project-funding process but understand that you can’t always get what you wish for.

“There are things that the county commissioners wanted that we won’t get,” Sorrells said.

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