New Friends of Panthertown president brings wealth of skills

Margaret Fry Carton of the Cashiers area has been elected president of the Friends of Panthertown, a nonprofit that protects, preserves and promotes Panthertown Valley, a national forest enclave of unusual beauty and stunning natural features near Cashiers.

"We will continue our work to ensure that Panthertown remains a vibrant and protected natural resource for our community, and for the unique flora and fauna the flourishes here," Carton said. "This organization represents a unique partnership between conservation minded individuals and the Forest Service."

Carton, who lives in the Cashiers, retired in 2005 from Coca-Cola Enterprises as the vice president, chief information officer. Before that, she was the vice president of investor relations and planning and managed several financial functions, including investor and share-owner relations, employee communications, financial media relations, and strategic financial planning and analysis. Her husband is an associate professor and department head for entrepreneurship, sales and marketing, and hospitality and tourism at Western Carolina University.

Panthertown is located in the Nantahala National Forest between the mountain communities of Cashiers in Jackson County and Lake Toxaway in Transylvania County. Carton is also the chairman of the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School Board of Trustees in northeast Georgia. In addition, she serves on the board of the Atlanta Ballet and is a member of the Western Carolina University Computer Information Systems Advisory Board.

Carton is the second president of Friends of Panthertown, succeeding David M. Bates, the organization's first president and co-founder, who passed away last year.

Jackson Commissioner race for Cashiers’ seat heats up

The battle of the Joneses is about to commence in Jackson County.

County Commissioner Mark Jones will appear on the ballot alongside challenger Marty Jones in November. Mark Jones is a Democrat, Marty Jones a Republican.

The Joneses will fight for the right to represent the Cashiers area.

Marty Jones and Mark Jones were on the opposite side of a heated countywide debate five years ago over mountain development regulations. Commissioner Mark Jones was part of the board that ushered in progressive regulations aimed at protecting the beauty and quality of life in the mountains.

Marty Jones, a real estate broker/owner, was a vocal opponent of the regulations, claiming they were too restrictive and deterimental to the economy.

He formed the Property Owners of Jackson County, a private-property rights advocacy group.

“Everything we predicted came true,” Marty Jones said Tuesday shortly after filing as a candidate. “I am running because I want Jackson County to get back to work.”

He said he’d help ensure that by working with the sector most flattened, such as builders and real estate agents plus the county planning department.

Democrat incumbent Mark Jones first ran and won election in 2006 and again in 2008, defeating Republican challengers each time.

But that was then and this is now. During the last election, following 16 years of Democratic domination, Republicans Doug Cody and Charles Elders successfully won election. Chairman Jack Debnam, an unaffiliated candidate who received GOP backing and advertising support, also won against a Democrat incumbent.

A phone message left for Mark Jones went unreturned by press time.

Cashiers TTA briefs county on marketing efforts

The Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority briefed Jackson County commissioners on some of their marketing campaigns from the year, responding to calls that the agency was too insular.

Mark Jones, a member of the Cashiers tourism board who is also a Jackson County commissioner, gave a presentation on the agency’s advertising for the year, including samples of ads that have been placed in various magazines and travel articles written about Cashiers.

Jones said the Cashiers tourism board plans to get new software that will allow it to share  the names and contact information for prospective tourists with lodging owners and other tourism businesses. When prospective tourists call, email or respond to magazine ads requesting information on visiting Cashiers, the Cashiers tourism agency sends them brochures. A new system will allow the database of names to be made available to those in the tourism industry who may want to follow up with brochures and literature of their own, Jones said.

Jones said the Cashiers tourism agency is more than happy to provide a regular report to the county.

“We truly want transparency,” Jones said.

Sue Bumgarner, the director of the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Association, had not responded to earlier requests by the county to provide a progress report on its tourist promotions. Tourism in Jackson County has taken a hit in the recession, spurring interest at the county level on how to improve marketing.

All the invoices for the Cashiers tourism agency go through the county finance office, and Bumgarner has said she thought those invoices served as adequate reporting to the county on the agency’s activities.

County commissioners demand answers from Cashiers tourism leader

A failure by the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce and the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority to provide county leaders reports on how room-tax dollars are spent led this week to promises of prompt corrective action.

Mark Jones, who serves in a dual role as county commissioner and chairman of the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority, said he had not been aware that there had been multiple and ongoing attempts to understand tourism marketing efforts. These are carried out with county funds under the direction of Cashiers Chamber of Commerce Director Sue Bumgarner. Bumgarner also has failed to provide the county with copies of minutes from Cashiers tourism board meetings as requested.

Jones’ concession came, however, after he indicated that he believed adequate information was already available to commissioners from the county’s finance office.

County Finance Officer Darlene Fox “prepares reports every month. Every dollar that goes in and every dollar that goes out,” Jones told the board.

While the bills for the Cashiers tourism agency are filed with the county finance department, it is often not clear from the invoices exactly what it is for, however, with only general references to an ad that ran in an unnamed magazine during an unspecified month or generic “marketing” services.

Chairman Jack Debnam made it evident that he didn’t consider Jones’ suggestion to simply rely on the finance office a satisfying one. Debnam indicated that he wants direct answers from the people with their hands down in the money pot.

“I’ve requested copy of minutes, since January, and information from (Bumgarner) and received nothing,” Debnam said.

Debnam said that the Jackson County Tourism and Travel Authority, by contrast, has provided him information and minutes of board meetings.

“I apologize,” Jones said. “I was not aware of the repetitive requests, but I hear loud and clear now.”

County Attorney Jay Coward told board members they have a lawful right to the information being sought. He did not detail possible remedies if the Cashiers TTA information and minutes continue being withheld from county leaders.

Bumbargner also was unable to provide The Smoky Mountain News with minutes from her tourism board meetings or an accounting of how marketing money was spent, including magazines ads had published in. Bumgarner was not at the commission work session, held this week to discuss whether to hike the county room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent.

 

Room tax hike deliberated

Jones urged a slowdown on the consideration of a room tax hike from 3 to 6 percent. The tax on overnight lodging generated $440,000 last year, which is pumped back into tourism marketing efforts carried out by two separate tourism promotion agencies in the county — the Cashiers and Jackson County Travel and Tourism authorities.

Commissioner Doug Cody defended the county’s attempt to demand accountability for how tourism tax money is being spent.

“I want to know why we are getting our butts kicked, and where our money is going, and is it being used wisely, and I want to find out now. And putting the tax increase aside, there’s a reason we are lagging behind. And, I don’t want to wait a year,” Cody said.

Regional tourism numbers show Jackson County behind other Western North Carolina counties, both in revenue made and jobs created.

The commissioners did not weigh in during the workshop on their individual stances on a room tax increase. Previously, four voted in favor of the increase, but that was before public backlash. Commissioners will take up the issue in early January for a vote, with intentions of studying the issue between now and then.

County Manager Chuck Wooten estimated the county’s two TTAs have spent as much as $10 million combined in tourism tax money over the past 25 years. Cashiers receives 75 percent of the lodging tax generated in the Cashiers area — which amounted to $177,000 last year. The remaining $263,000 went to the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority.

Cashiers’ efforts to attract tourists have been isolated from the county’s overall tourism efforts, spearheaded by the separate Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority and the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.

Cashiers does not share marketing strategy or advertising campaigns with the Jackson County TTA.

 

How we got here

• Jackson County commissioners in early October voted 4-1 to hike the county’s room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent, with Mark Jones voting against the increase.

• The board later rescinded that vote because, as advised by County Attorney Jay Coward, they failed to hold a legally required public hearing.

• A side issue erupted over whether the two separate tourism marketing arms — one for Cashiers and one for the county as a whole — should be merged.

• The obligatory public hearing was held last week, attracting a swarm of unhappy lodging owners from the southern portion of the county who aired their vast displeasure with the proposed increase.

• Commissioners held a work session this week to discuss the possible hike. Discussion among commissioners deteriorated into accusations of underhanded dealing and political power plays. Before the argument broke out, County Manager Chuck Wooten defended the sequence of events leading up to the room-tax vote by presenting commissioners and members of the news media with an inch-tall stack of paperwork. These included emails and other documentation accumulated before and after the October room tax hike.

 

Where do we go next?

County Manager Chuck Wooten provided the following suggestions for consideration by commissioners, carefully emphasizing these were an attempt to help, not control, the debate:

• Take no action: Occupancy tax remains at 3 percent and the county’s two travel and tourism boards continue as currently configured.

• Make minor structural changes: Keep two tourism agencies, but provide more flexibility in how the room tax is spent, allowing a portion to go toward “tourism-related expenditures,” including capital projects, rather than solely marketing and promotions.

• Do a comprehensive performance evaluation of the current tourism agencies and analyze the effectiveness of these organizations, then make decisions based off of the results.

• Hike the tax from 3 percent to 6 percent and form a single Jackson County Tourism Development Authority.

Railroad wants money, county wants assurances

Jackson County is nowhere close to cementing a deal with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad — one that would offer financial incentives in exchange for basing a steam engine tourist train in Dillsboro.

“It is far from a done deal,” said County Manager Chuck Wooten.

The county and the train have yet to agree on key factors.

The heart of the matter is a restored 1913 steam engine and passenger cars the railroad would like to put in service. But there’s a problem. The train is in Maine, and moving it here would cost $430,000, the railroad’s owner Al Harper estimates.

Harper wants the county to chip in half the cost of moving the train, as well as help secure an outside grant to build a turntable and a standing commitment to help with advertising costs.

Discussions have been informal and intermittent since last winter. The deal is primarily being brokered by a Dillsboro business owner and town board member, David Gates, who is acting as a de facto intermediary between Harper and county officials.

Gates recently drew up a draft contract and passed it around to the various parties. Harper lives out of state, but came to town for the train festival in Bryson City in late September. Gates took him a copy — and Harper promptly signed it.

The draft is not a version the county would endorse right now, however, and Wooten was flummoxed as to why Harper would have signed it prematurely.

There’s a key component missing, from the county’s perspective. Jackson County wants a written guarantee the steam engine would be based in Dillsboro for at least five years — not Bryson City, where the rest of its trains depart from.

“We want it to originate in Dillsboro, turn around in Bryson City and run back to Dillsboro,” Wooten said.

Shops would benefit more if people boarded and disembarked in Dillsboro, rather than merely rolling into town for a 90-minute layover before loading back up and heading out.

The trip from Bryson City to Dillsboro and back lasts four hours total, including the layover. Tickets start at $49 for adults and $29 for children age 2 to 12.

Dillsboro was once the main depot for the train, but the headquarters were moved to Bryson City in 2005. Then in 2008, the train yanked service to Dillsboro completely before partially restoring it the following year.

“When the train left, they lost a lot of traffic,” Wooten said of Dillsboro merchants.

County leaders are skittish that could happen again and want an assurance built into the contract. To pass muster with the county, the contract would have to require the train to keep the steam engine based in Dillsboro for five years. If it is moved elsewhere, the railroad would have to pay back a portion of the county’s grant, Wooten said.

Ideally, the train would promise to run a certain number of trips — such as two a day during summer and fall, and once a day during winter. But the county can’t expect the railroad to make such a commitment not knowing what the demand will be.

The draft contract circulated by Dillsboro stipulated that operations of the steam engine would be based in Dillsboro. But it also stated that “only the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad will have complete authority as it relates to all scheduling and operations of the train set originating out of Dillsboro.”

Such a disclaimer could make enforcement difficult if the railroad ever broke the promise.

Wooten also said if a deal was ever agreed on, the county would shy away from writing a check directly to the railroad. Instead, the county would want an invoice from the company involved in moving the steam engine and would pay it directly.

 

Turntable

A must-have for the train to bring a steam engine to Dillsboro is a turntable, a piece of track that can be spun around to get the engine pointed back the right way when it reaches the end of the line.

The train apparently can’t afford the $200,000 to build one. The tiny town of Dillsboro can’t either. But the town will apply for a grant to cover the cost. A lot is riding on the outcome of that grant.

“No turntable, no steam engine,” Wooten said. “That would be a deal killer.”

The train currently runs on diesel engines. When the engine reaches the end of the line on excursions, it goes in reverse until it gets back to the depot in Bryson City.

Steam engines can’t go in reverse for long distances, however, making the turntable critical. The steam engine would run from Dillsboro to Bryson City, so another turntable would have to be installed there.

A turntable in Bryson City has been discussed for years. In 2005, the train got a $7.5 million low-interest loan from the Federal Railroad Administration, in part to construct turntables in Bryson City and Dillsboro. “How many years ago was that and where is the turntable?” asked Hanneke Ware, an inn owner in Jackson County who doesn’t think the county should give the railroad a grant. Wooten said the train apparently purchased the turntables but never installed them.

A portion of that loan was also for repairs to the track. But the majority was used to restructure existing debt that had a higher interest rate.

That existing debt and federal loan is one reason the railroad wants grants — not more loans — to move the steam engine and for the turntable. Wooten was told by the railroad that it lacked the collateral to take on additional debt right now.

The train has also asked for money for advertising from the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority — tapping into the  pot of money raised from a tax on overnight lodging in the county. The train initially asked for $150,000 a year, but has since revised the request to an unspecified amount of advertising on the train’s behalf, specifically for marketing the steam engine service from Dillsboro.

Is room tax hike aimed at helping scenic railroad?

Opponents to a proposed room tax increase in Jackson County are accusing county leaders of secretly earmarking the money for a grant to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.

“If this is about raising funds to get the railroad to move back to Dillsboro, then we are against it,” said Hanneke Ware, owner of the Chalet Inn, at a public hearing on the room tax increase this week. “It is not right to increase the accommodation taxes in a county as widespread as Jackson to provide marketing money to a private business.”

The scenic tourist railroad has asked the county for as much as half a million dollars in exchange for offering steam engine train service to the tourist village of Dillsboro.

The train, once headquartered in Dillsboro, cited the flagging economy when it pulled out in 2008. Dillsboro’s galleries, gift shops and restaurants were thrust into a tailspin over the sudden loss of 60,000 tourists annually.

While the train has since brought limited passenger train service back to Dillsboro, business owners worry the train won’t stick around and still pine for the same level of foot traffic they once enjoyed.

County Commissioner Mark Jones, who spoke to commissioners during the public hearing in his capacity as head of the Cashiers Area Travel and Tourism Authority, said if a tax increase is needed to help the train, perhaps Dillsboro should levy it. In Macon County, Jones pointed out, the county levies a 3 percent tax and the town of Franklin levies an additional 3 percent tax there.

County leaders say there is no connection between the proposed room tax increase and the financial assistance being sought by the railroad.

“We don’t have a motive,” said Commission Chairman Jack Debnam.

Anyone who thinks the room tax increase is aimed at raising money to give the railroad is misinformed, Debnam said. The county has bandied the idea around but is not close to a deal, Debnam said. (see related article)

Several speakers opposing the room tax hike believe there is a connection, however.

“Why are they asking the county for money?” Ware asked.

She said the railroad should do what other businesses do when expanding: namely, get a bank loan.

“Is it because they don’t have collateral?” Ware asked. “If they can’t get a loan, why would the county want to put money into a business whose financial plans are tenuous?”

Henry Hoche likewise questioned why the tourist railroad needs money from the county.

“To me it makes no sense why the railroad isn’t paying for it itself,” said Hoche, owner of Innisfree Inn By-the-Lake in Glenville.

Giving tax money to private business in exchange for creating jobs isn’t exactly a new concept. Incentives to land new industry are common at the state level, and counties often get in the game by offering tax credits to lure new companies offering jobs.

Jackson County has a revolving loan fund designed to help businesses moving to or expanding in Jackson County. Al Harper, the owner of the railroad, previously estimated 15 to 20 news jobs would be created under his plan to base a steam engine train in Dillsboro — a plan predicated on financial help, however.

County Manager Chuck Wooten said the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad steam engine project would not create enough jobs to qualify for the size of the revolving loan request, however.

It wouldn’t matter anyway, Wooten said, because the railroad has since told him it can’t take on any more debt.

Spin-off jobs created by other businesses, such as the tourist-oriented shops in Dillsboro, wouldn’t count toward the job creation quota the railroad must meet, Wooten said.

The scenic railroad wants to base trips on a restored 1913 steam engine and rail cars in Dillsboro, but there’s a hitch. The train is in Maine, and it would cost more than $400,000 to move it down to Dillsboro, the railroad estimates. It wants the county to split the cost, plus pony up money to help advertise the new steam engine service.

Currently, tourism tax dollars can only go to marketing and advertising, not to hard costs like steam trains. The narrow criteria were imposed by the state in the 1980s when counties first began charging lodging taxes.

A few years ago, the law changed. Room tax can now fund “tourism-related expenditures,” which can include walking trails, festival bleachers, boat docks, or perhaps a stream train — anything that would presumably lure tourists. The state allows up to one-third of a county’s room tax dollars to go toward such “tourism-related expenditures.”

If Jackson County wants this flexibility, however, it has to adopt new language at the local level reflecting that. It has become part of the discussion over whether to increase the room tax, along with revamping the tourism oversight agency that controls the money.

Clifford Meads, general manager of High Hampton Inn in Cashiers, doesn’t like the idea of tourism tax money going to projects instead of strictly promotions.

“There will be people dreaming up projects so they can spend the money,” Meads said.

Meads said shipping money from other parts of the county to help Dillsboro is “going to be divisive.”

Cashiers crowd mounts protest to room tax increase in Jackson

Cashiers business owners led the charge against a proposed tax increase on overnight lodging in Jackson County during a public hearing this week.

Several lodging owners complained that tourism is already down because of the economy. Asking tourists to pay a higher tax when they are reluctant to travel in the first place is adding insult to injury, they argued.

“This is our bread and butter,” said Richard Hattler of Mountain Lake Rentals in Cashiers, adding that a tax increase in these times of economic hardships is “insane.”

SEE ALSO: Is room tax hike aimed at helping scenic railroad? 

George Ware of Chalet Inn said tax increase would represent an “ill-advised action at the worst-possible time.”

About 40 people packed the hearing before county commissioners, with a dozen speaking out against the tax increase.

“You are going to negate the efforts of the tax itself,” said Judy Brown, president of the Greater Cashiers Area Merchants’ Association. “I think this is going to end up blowing up in our faces.”

Jackson leaders have proposed doubling the room tax from 3 to 6 percent. The room tax raised $440,000 last year, which is pumped back into tourism promotions.

The extra revenue from the proposed tax increase should mean more money to market Jackson County as a destination, which in turn should increase tourism. That’s something supporters say Jackson County sorely needs.

Overnight stays have declined by 12 percent in Jackson since 2006. Jackson has fared worse on the tourism front than other counties and has failed to rebound as well as its neighbors.

But a room tax increase is the wrong approach, opponents argued. It would put Jackson’s room tax higher than surrounding counties: Haywood and Transylvania are at 4 percent, while Macon and Swain are at 3 percent.

Tourists are already penny pinching as it is. Industry-wide, lodging owners note a major trend in how visitors book their trips these days.

“It is a last minute reservation, they want only one night, they want a discount, and they want the bottom line of how much it is going to cost,” said Michelle McMahon, owner of Mountain Brook Cottages for more than 30 years.

McMahon claims tourists are savvy enough these days to ask about extra taxes and fees, factoring the total cost — not just the advertised nightly rate — into their decision about where to stay.

“They compare, compare, compare,” McMahon said. “Nobody truthfully cares this is Jackson County. They just want to come to the mountains.”

Mary Korotwa, owner of Cashiers Resort Rentals, said the county is barking up the wrong tree in its quest for more tourism tax money. Instead, the county should be tracking down people who rent out their mountain homes and cabins to vacationers under the radar without levying the tax and remitting it to the county.

“You are leaving money on the table,” Korotwa said. “There are legions of homeowners in the county renting their own properties who are not paying the tax.”

Opponents overwhelmingly hailed from the Cashiers area. None of the county’s large chain hotels showed up.

That led County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam to wonder whether opposition to the rate hike is shared by the majority in the tourism industry. Debnam said the goal is to help tourism, not hurt it.

“We are trying to figure out how to promote Jackson County,” Debnam said. “We’ve got to be able to do a better job than we’ve been doing.”

 

Finding the best way

Controversy over the room tax increase has opened other wounds in the county. One is whether tourism tax revenue should continue to be divvied up between two tourism entities — the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority and a separate Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority.

Both of those contract with either the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and Cashiers Chamber of Commerce to carry out on-the-ground tourism marketing. Manning a visitor center, answering phones, mailing out brochures, placing ads in magazines or on billboards, managing a travel web site — all these functions are carried out by the respective chambers of commerce rather than an explicit county travel and tourism staff.

The county has floated the idea of merging the separate Jackson and Cashiers tourism agencies into a single countywide tourism authority. The chambers of commerce fear they could lose their starring role — and their cut of the room tax revenue — under a new structure.

Robert Jumper, chairman of the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority, spoke up for the vital role played by the Jackson chamber when it comes to tourism.

The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce has the skills, knowledge and expertise to orchestrate tourism promotions on behalf of the county, Jumper said.

“We want our voice to be heard,” Jumper said, adding that any new countywide entity should honor the existing arrangement with the chamber

SEE ALSO: Railroad wants money, county wants assurances 

Debnam said not to worry. He said the two chambers of commerce would, in all likelihood, remain the go-to entities for carrying out the scope of tourism work.

“I think there is a big misconception about what is going to happen,” Debnam said.

Commissioners didn’t offer any comments of their own following the hearing. They will hold a work session to talk about what to do at 1 p.m. Monday, Nov. 14, in the county administration building. The earliest they would vote is at their next formal meeting on Nov. 21.

The commissioners previously voted 4 to 1 on their intent to increase the room tax, but that was prior to such backlash from Cashiers lodging owners. One commissioner is rumored to have changed his mind.

Meanwhile, lodging owners fighting the tax continue to rally their forces. They are forming a Jackson County Accommodations Association “to strengthen our voice,” said Henry Hoche, owner of Innisfree Inn By-the-Lake in Glenville.

As for a compromise, such as increasing the tax to only 4 percent as neighboring Haywood and Transylvania have done, Hoche wasn’t interested. A more modest increase from 3 to 4 percent would bring in another $115,000 a year to bolster tourism efforts. But it simply isn’t needed, Hoche said.

Jackson room tax hike threatens Cashiers tourism group

Cashiers could soon lose autonomy over its tourism marketing efforts if a plan to merge two separate tourism entities in Jackson County goes through.

While Cashiers tourism leaders are fighting to save this independent marketing arm, those in favor of a merger question whether the Cashiers solo approach has hampered overall tourism efforts in the county.

“This is a chance for the county to determine whether it is getting the best return on its investment,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said. “I just don’t believe there is a lot of cross communication going on. They are focusing on their one area of responsibility, and we are missing out on some opportunities.”

Dual tourism entities — namely the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authorities and the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authorities — are less effective than just one entity would be, according to Wooten.

“It appears to be if we had a single travel authority we would have an opportunity to develop a countywide strategic advertising plan and deploy our resources to focus on the specific areas of the plan,” Wooten said.

Cashiers’ tourism agency has isolated itself from larger tourism efforts in the county. Cashiers does not share its marketing strategy or advertising campaigns with the rest of county, leaving the larger Jackson tourism entity in the dark on how Cashiers spends its allotment of tourism tax dollars.

Although Cashiers representatives sit on the board of the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority, no one from greater Jackson County sits on the Cashiers board. The result is a one-way street, with Cashiers being privy to the tourism activities carried out by Jackson but not the other way around.

Sue Bumgarner, the director of the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority and the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce, was unable to provide basic information about their activities.

• She does not keep an accurate count of visitor center walk-ins.

• She could not provide information about how many web hits or telephone inquires the agency got.

• She said she did not have a list of how the Cashiers tourism authority has spent its advertising budget over the past year.

• Minutes from the quarterly meetings of the Cashiers tourism board were not readily available. They are kept in hardcopy format only in boxes at an off-site storage unit. Minutes have not been provided to the county despite a request to do so.

• A database of prospective visitors who have requested travel literature is not shared with the Jackson tourism agency, despite the Jackson tourism agency sharing all of its leads with Cashiers.

The heart of the issue is how best to spend tourism-tax revenue. A 3 percent tax on overnight lodging in the county raised $440,000 last year. The money is pumped back into tourism marketing and promotions.

Tourism revenue has declined in Jackson County by 12 percent since 2006. Jackson isn’t entirely alone. The recession-driven trend was mirrored across the mountains, although to a lesser extent.

Jackson fared worse than its neighbors, experiencing steeper declines. And while surrounding counties have since rebounded to their pre-recession levels, Jackson is still down.

To improve matters, Jackson leaders plan to double the room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent. The extra revenue will mean more money to spend on marketing Jackson County as a tourism destination and hopefully in turn, increase tourism.

A majority of Jackson County commissioners have voiced support for increasing the room tax, with four of the five in favor of the plan.

The debate has now turned to whether there should be a single tourism authority to steer marketing efforts and provide oversight for how the tourism-tax revenue is spent.

Currently, the room tax is split between the Cashiers tourism agency and the Jackson tourism agency. Cashiers gets 75 percent of the lodging tax generated in the Cashiers area — which amounted to $177,000 last year. The remaining $263,000 went to the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority.

By joining forces, the two could save on overhead and administration, freeing up more dollars to spend on marketing, Wooten said.

“Sometimes I think we get caught up in the ‘that’s way we have always done it’ mentality and this may restrict our opportunity to grow,” Wooten said.

Bumgarner would not say specifically whether she wants the Cashiers tourism agency to merge with a single countywide one, saying she would have to consult her board before sharing her views publicly.

“I would rather not get into it until we know for sure what is going on,” Bumgarner said.

But, she did say that a Cashiers-focused tourism agency is better positioned to market Cashiers than a countywide organization.

“Just being here and knowing the market and what people are looking for, it is a whole different area. We are looking for people to come up and buy million dollar homes,” Bumgarner said. “We are marketing to a whole different group I guess you would say. I felt in order to do that we needed to be able to place ads in different kind of publications.”

 

Shotgun advertising

Running advertisements — whether in magazines, billboards, or online — is a key component of tourism marketing.

Bumgarner was unable to provide a list of where she has run ads over the past year. She said she did not keep a list of which magazines she has run ads in or what months they ran. Cashiers spends close to $60,000 a year on advertising.

“I would have to go back and think of which ones I’ve done. I don’t have time to do that. I don’t have time to go back and look at all those ads,” Bumgarner said.

Bumgarner also does not share her advertising schedule with her counterparts at the Jackson tourism entity, despite a standing request by Julie Spiro, executive director of the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority and the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. Knowing which magazines, billboards and other advertisements Cashiers has planned would allow the two entities to maximize their marketing dollars.

Initially, Bumgarner was ambiguous when asked whether she shared her advertising schedule with the Jackson tourism arm. She answered that “they have the same ad agency as us.”

When asked again whether she gave Jackson a copy of her advertising schedule, Bumgarner replied: “I am on the travel and tourism board in Jackson County also.”

When asked a third time, she said the two entities sometimes split the cost of ads in magazines. When asked a fourth time whether she shared her ad schedule with Jackson, she said, “They know our ad schedule.” When asked how, she answered, “because I sit on their TTA board.”

Finally, Bumgarner said she did not provide Spiro with Cashiers’ advertising schedule.

“I don’t give out our whole schedule … not unless they ask for it or want to see it,” Bumgarner said, adding, “It is no big secret.”

Spiro said she has asked to see it, but has never gotten one.

The Jackson tourism entity develops a marketing strategy and advertising plan for the year each spring. Bumgarner gets a copy and so does the county.

The need for niche marketing — marketing that caters to Cashiers’ unique tourist demographic — is the chief argument of Cashiers tourism leaders who want to hang on to their own tourism arm. Cashiers knows best how to market and promote Cashiers, they say.

However, Bumgarner could not provide a list of what that advertising is exactly.

About half of Cashiers’ advertising budget is managed by an ad agency. The agency is contracted to design and place ads on Cashiers’ behalf.

For the rest, Bumgarner places the ads herself. She is able to take advantage of last minute discounts on ad space or buy ads to promote special events that come up over the course of the year, she said.

Bumgarner referred questions about those specific ads to the county finance office, however, which pays the bills when invoices for the ads come in.

Most of the invoices, however, don’t include the name of the magazine, nor the month that an ad ran. The invoices are sent by publishing companies that usually have numerous magazines under their umbrella.

A review of advertising invoices from the ad agency for Cashiers show that it places ads in four magazines over the course of the year for Cashiers: AAA Go, AAA Going Places, Blue Ridge Country and Southern Living. The Jackson tourism entity ran ads in those same publications, according to a review of invoices held by the county finance office.

 

Nuts and bolts

When a prospective tourist requests information about the area, tourist entities mail out a packet of brochures and guides designed to seal the deal on coming to visit.

The Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority shares every inquiry it gets with Sue Bumgarner, the head of the Cashiers tourism arm.

That way, Cashiers can send out its own Cashiers-tailored literature and brochures to prospective tourists, in addition to what’s being sent out on behalf of the whole county, said Spiro. Spiro shares responses that come in from magazine ads, as well as a database of people who have called or emailed to request travel information.

“If I get leads from AAA Go, Blue Ridge Parkway, Southern Living, I just forward those to (Bumgarner) because I don’t know if she has those leads or not, so I just share the leads with her,” Spiro said.

Bumgarner, however, does not share inquiries coming in to the Cashiers office with the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority. Bumgarner was vague initially when asked whether she shared visitor inquires with Spiro. At first, she said “yes.”

But when asked specifically how she shared the inquiries, Bumgarner said that she actually did not share inquires that came in from magazine ads — she only shares inquires from people who call or email asking for travel information.

“Yes, we share those. We email them back and forth,” Bumgarner said.

However, Spiro said she has not received any leads or visitor inquires from Cashiers barring a few times in early 2010 from one of Bumgarner’s assistants. But that person left, and since then, Spiro has not gotten any inquiries from Cashiers despite asking for them from time to time.

Upon further questioning, Bumgarner said she shared inquires with members of the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce who pay an extra fee for the inquiry list.

“We send it out to our members that pay to get the inquiry list every week,” Bumgarner said.

Inns, cabin rentals, golf courses and the like can use the inquiry list to send out their own brochures, peppering the prospective tourists with a litany of travel literature in hopes of luring them to their particular establishment.

But, the list isn’t available for non-chamber members.

“You can’t have it, not from us,” Bumgarner said.

Other tourism entities that get tax dollars for marketing make the inquiry list available to all accommodations owners, since they all help collect the tax.

“The accommodation owners are provided it free of charge,” Spiro said of the inquiry list produced by the Jackson tourism agency.

 

Tracking visitor numbers

The Cashiers visitor center does not keep an exact record of how many walk-in visitors come through its doors.

Bumgarner pegged foot traffic at the visitor center as “close to 10,000” so far this year. Most visitor centers, including those in Maggie Valley, Waynesville and Sylva, use a clicker to count walk-in traffic.

Cashiers uses estimates. Bumgarner was initially vague about the methodology for tracking visitors.

“Just by, you know, daily counts,” Bumgarner said.

When asked specifically whether her office used a clicker to count each person, Bumgarner replied, “we just estimate at the end of the day. I just kind of check off at the end of the day how many we had.”

As for telephone calls or web hits?

“Oh Lord, I have no clue on those,” Bumgarner said.

The visitor center run by the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce in Sylva keeps an exact count of daily walk-in traffic, telephone calls, email inquiries, web page views and downloads.

“All those mediums are ways we can track how well marketing is and is not working,” Spiro said.

Tracking the number of inquiries and traffic from month to month and year to year also provides a picture over time of whether tourism is trending up or down. Bumgarner did not have tracking data accessible to share, saying that it was not saved on her computer but instead existed only on paper and was located in boxes at an off-site storage unit.

 

Meeting minutes

Bumgarner also was unable to provide minutes from past tourism board meetings. She said she does not save notes or minutes from the meetings on her computer. Bumgarner said she types up the minutes from hand-written notes, prints them out, then deletes the file, keeping only the hard copy.

Bumgarner did not have copies of back minutes readily available, however. They are kept in boxes at an offsite storage unit and would be difficult to pull out, Bumgarner said. They are all mixed in with boxes of magazines, Bumgarner said.

The minutes are supposed to provide a record of what the Cashiers tourism board discusses at its quarterly meetings.

The board is charged with developing and guiding a tourism marketing strategy — finding the best way to spend the roughly $180,000 a year in tax dollars allocated to promote Cashiers.

As a public entity, the Cashiers tourism board is required by law to keep minutes of its meetings and share them with the public upon request.

County officials asked Bumgarner to start providing minutes from the Cashiers tourism board meeting earlier this year, but still have not received any.

The Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority shares a copy of its meeting minutes with the county.

Doing so keeps the county apprised of the what the Jackson tourism entity is up to — spelling out its marketing strategy, plan and vision and a snapshot of its activities from the month.

Cashiers’ failure to do likewise is in violation of the county’s original legislation that first created the Cashier Travel and Tourism Authority. By law, both Jackson and Cashiers tourism arms are supposed to provide quarterly reports to the county of its activities. This mandate was included in the original legislation creating the two entities in 1987.

Shortly after county commission Chairman Jack Debnam took office in January, he asked both tourism boards to start making the quarterly reports. Spiro, who already provided copies of her board meeting minutes to the county, began producing quarterly activity reports as well.

Bumgarner does neither. County Manager Chuck Wooten believes Cashiers is not satisfying the county requirement for quarterly reports on their activity.

“It seems to be there would be at least some understanding or expectation they would at least update commissioners on what activities they are doing to try to improve and increase travel and tourism in the county,” Wooten said.

 

Chamber fate

The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and the separate Cashiers Chamber of Commerce get a cut of the tourism tax dollars to carry out the job of tourism promotion.

The Cashiers Chamber of Commerce gets $60,000 a year from the Cashiers tourism agency. It accounts for 40 percent of the Cashiers Chambers total budget of $146,000.

Jackson Chamber of Commerce gets $72,000 a year in room tax dollars, plus another $9,000 a year in rent to subsidize the overhead of the visitor center.

If the separate Jackson and Cashiers tourism arms were merged into a single countywide entity, the respective chambers of commerce would most likely continue getting their cut of the room tax money.

“There is no reason to think you wouldn’t continue to utilize the chambers to do those thing you have to do on the ground to distribute the brochures to answer the telephone to run the visitors bureau,” Wooten said. “Someone has to provide the services they currently provide, so my belief is the chambers would continue providing these services and receive support accordingly.”

Wooten said the county would like to see a formal contract outlining the arrangement with the chambers, however.

“There should be some kind of written understanding of what the expectations are in return for the funds provided,” Wooten said.

The Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority has not voted on a contract with the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce since 1987, Bumgarner said, despite the dollar amount awarded to the Cashiers Chamber increasing over the years.

If the plan goes through, the two tourism entities that oversee tourism tax dollars for their respective regions — the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority and the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority — would be dissolved and a single entity formed in its place.

Wooten has floated the idea of a nine-member countywide tourism board with cross-county representation.

Barking dogs spark pleas for ordinance change

Residents in a Cashiers subdivision weary of incessant dog barking called on county commissioners this week to help them find some peace and quiet.

“For the past six years, our community has had to deal with a kennel of dogs that bark day and night,” Bill Armgard said. “It’s just maddening. It is stressful 24 hours a day.”

Armgard, speaking on behalf of residents in Red Fox Ridge in the Norton community, asked commissioners to please amend the county’s noise ordinance to muzzle barking dogs.

Armgard was armed with a recording of the dogs’ barking to share with commissioners. He opted not to play it for fear of seeming inappropriate or disrespectful, Armgard said after the meeting.

About 40 people attended the board meeting, held in Cashiers at the Albert Carlton Library.

Another resident in a different part of the county also recently asked commissioners to tackle the problem of barking dogs. That resident had added concerns about a neighbor firing guns.

County Planner Gerald Green noted that Jackson and Macon counties are the only local governments in the immediate region who do not have restrictions on noises made by pets and animals.

Jackson County adopted a noise ordinance in 1991; it was last amended in 2003. The county’s noise ordinance essentially prohibits any “loud, raucous and disturbing noise,” defined as “any sound, which because of its volume level, duration and character annoys, disturbs, injures or endangers the comfort, health peace or safety of reasonable persons of ordinary sensibilities,” Green said.

Even if barking meets that definition, a noise ordinance doesn’t apply to pets unless it specifically says so — which Jackson’s doesn’t.

David Young, also a resident of the Norton community, provided commissioners with a copy of a letter he wrote to the dogs’ owner in July 2010, asking that something be done.

“You and I understand that roosters crow, cows moo, people talk and dogs bark,” Young wrote on the behalf of the residents of Red Fox Ridge. “Obviously, these are all natural forms of behavior/communication. My point is that typically domesticated animals are quiet at night. The nighttime barking from dogs can, I believe, be equated to a person yelling … ‘hey, hey, hey … hey … hey, hey, hey … hey, hey, hey’ outside someone’s home incessantly at inappropriate times. I believe the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you applies here.”

The letter, Young told commissioners, fell on deaf ears.

Green asked that the board consider the requests and decide if it wanted him to work with the sheriff’s department on barking-dog restrictions.

Sheriff, newspaper’s portrayal of rape victim comes under fire

Comments by Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe about a rape victim published in the weekly Cashiers newspaper two weeks ago have sparked protests from local and state groups that combat sexual violence, as well as individuals from the Cashiers community.

The news article, printed under the banner headline “Alleged sexual assault reported,” appeared in the Aug. 24 edition of the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle. It included a blow-by-blow account, attributed to the sheriff, of the rape victim’s long evening of barhopping and heavy drinking in the hours leading up to two men following her home and breaking into her house. The 34-year-old woman told deputies one man raped her while the other waited for him to complete the act.

Critics have reacted angrily to the tone of Ashe’s comments. They said the sheriff seemed to cast doubt on the truthfulness of the woman’s rape claim. The news article also emphasized that several hours passed before the woman reported being attacked and discussed, at length, her level of alcohol intake that night.

“It painted the picture of someone who is lying, or who was to blame for anything that happened,” said Monika Hostler, executive director of the N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “Now in Jackson County, if I’m a woman and I’ve been drinking or gone to the bar and been sexually assaulted, I know what’s going to happen if I report it.”

Ashe said he’d provided the Chronicle’s reporter a factual recounting as the victim relayed the situation to law enforcement. After the sheriff indicated that he had not read the article — “I know what I said, I don’t know what they printed” — a reporter for The Smoky Mountain News read the article from the Cashier’s paper, in its entirety, aloud to him during the course of a cell-phone interview late last week.

Ashe was asked whether he wanted to correct any inaccuracies or misquotes in the newspaper’s report. The sheriff neither disputed the accuracy of the article nor asserted that he’d been misquoted. Kelly Donaldson, editor of the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle, declined to comment, which is the policy of the newspaper’s parent company, Community Newspapers Inc. of Athens, Ga.

 

Sheriff: woman not at fault

Ashe emphasized that he did not intend to indicate that the woman’s barhopping brought on the sexual assault. A suspect, Efrai Ubera Morales, 30, of an Amethyst Drive, Cashiers, address, was arrested 16 days after the attack on a charge of first-degree rape.

“I’m not saying (the victim) went out and asked to get raped, but we can’t change the facts from what she told us,” Ashe said. “That’s the truthful statement from the victim.”

Hostler and other critics, however, said Jackson County’s top law enforcement leader and the way the newspaper article was framed crossed serious moral and ethical boundaries. In the end, according to Hostler’s assessment, an innocent victim appeared on the front page of her local, hometown newspaper (circulation 3,200) in substance, at least, judged responsible for a sexual assault.

The woman was not identified by name in the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle’s report, which is standard practice by most news organizations when reporting on sexual assaults. But in that small community in southern Jackson County, who she is and where she lives rapidly became public knowledge.

The article and the sheriff’s comments outraged Mary-Allyson Henson of Cashiers. She blames both Ashe and the newspaper equally for heaping further abuse on a woman who’d suffered through a sexual assault.

“There are no circumstances that would justify a woman being violated, period,” said Henson.

In fact, however, Henson said the victim was a friend who rarely goes out, and who had simply wanted to enjoy the evening celebrating another friend’s birthday.

 

The article in question

Almost from the beginning of the news article, the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle focused on the woman’s actions that night.

“Though the assault occurred at the home, Sheriff Jimmy Ashe said that the night consisted of trips to multiple bars, which may or may not have been where the perpetrators encountered the victim,” the Chronicle’s article stated in the first paragraph.

The newspaper and sheriff also elected to tag the woman’s report an “alleged” sexual assault.

“It actually started at an individual’s house consuming alcohol,” Ashe was quoted as saying. “From there, the victim went to the Sapphire Mountain Brewing Company, and from the brewing company it went to the Gamekeeper where a birthday party was going on for one of her friends. There was continued consumption of alcohol during that course.”

When the article was published, detectives were hoping to locate surveillance video that would reveal the suspect’s identity, which is perhaps why Ashe elaborated on the victim’s schedule that night. He did not say that, however. Ashe did defend the use of the word “alleged.”

“It is ‘alleged’ until we can prove that it happened,” Ashe told The Smoky Mountain News. He does not apparently agree that the use of the word “alleged,” when attached in this manner to a victim’s report of sexual assault, might cast doubts on whether law enforcement believed the woman involved.

Generally, newspapers use the word “alleged” when referring to someone charged with a crime. A suspect can allegedly commit murder, but the murder itself is not alleged. The murder happened. The only uncertainty is who did it. If arson was committed, or a theft occurred, those crimes are not alleged. They occurred and are treated as facts. A suspect later charged with the crime allegedly committed it until a court of law proves them guilty.

Ashe, via the Cashiers newspaper, then described the actual rape.

“She said that two Hispanic males entered her home,” Ashe told the Chronicle. “She was not sure how they got into the home; there was no forced entry. One of the Hispanic males forced her to the floor and had sexual intercourse with her in the bathroom area. … She was able to send a message from her cell phone to the friend, whose residence she was at previously, and said something to the effect that she was being assaulted.”

The newspaper reporter then wrote: “According to Ashe, it was not until the following morning when one of the victim’s friends convinced her to go to the hospital for a rape kit, around 6 a.m., that the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office was contacted in regards to the assault.

The article then quoted Ashe directly as saying: “’During his whole time, no one had contacted law enforcement: not when she was being followed, not when the assault occurred, not after she had a conversation with her friend on the phone who she spoke to. During none of this time had any law enforcement been contacted. It wasn’t until she had a female friend who she was talking to convince her that next morning around 6 a.m. that she (needed) to go to the hospital and be checked.’”

Later in the newspaper article, Ashe is quoted as saying the victim provided “very vague descriptions,” and that she knew one of the Hispanic males involved went by the alias or nickname of “Drug Boy.”

 

‘Victim blaming’

Brent Kinser, president of REACH of Jackson County’s board of directors, said in an email interview with the The Smoky Mountain News that he wasn’t “sure in whom I am more disappointed: the sheriff, Mr. Ashe, who made the statements, or the writer … who presented them in such a clearly accusatory way.”

REACH is a nonprofit that works to help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

“Surely neither of these good men intended to imply that this victim had it coming to her, and yet the article reads in such a way that lends itself to precisely that interpretation. The only question here is the guilt or innocence of the perpetrators of this crime,” Kinser wrote. “The victim is only that, a victim, whether she decided to enjoy herself with friends at one location, or several, alcohol present or not. It is indeed painful to see yet another case of sexual violence in which a victim, in addition to all else, will now have to find some way to forgive herself, since according to this article, she behaved in such a way to invite the assault.”

Kim Roberts-Fer, executive director of REACH, said that “victim blaming is definitely the issue here.”

“It was reported that there were trips to multiple bars, with extensive information on alcohol consumption,” Roberts-Fer said. “It leads one to believe that if you consume alcohol you deserve or can expect to be raped. Not only is this information irrelevant, it actually is giving false information to the public, by implying that if you don’t consume alcohol you can somehow avoid being raped. This is not true — anyone can be raped, under any circumstance, and the one responsible for the rape is, very simply, the rapist.”

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