Chamber could take on travel and tourism

Published 10:19 am Thursday, February 17, 2011

A proposal could eliminate the travel and tourism office, transitioning the rolls to the chamber of commerce.

Polk County is considering dissolving its travel and tourism services to the Carolina Foothills Chamber of Commerce and the proposal has caused quite a stir with some accommodation providers.

Word has circulated the area for weeks that a proposal has been made to transfer the service. The Polk County Travel and Tourism Advisory Board met with Polk County Manager Ryan Whitson Monday, Feb. 14 regarding the proposal.

The travel and tourism board has not come to a consensus yet on how it feels about the possibility of the chamber taking over the service, but some members expressed strong opinions this week against the move.

Travel and tourism board chair Peggy Turner said she is upset the county did not tell the tourism board what is happening.

“Ryan, I think you’re throwing in the towel too soon,” Turner said to Whitson Monday. “I feel that way because you didn’t come to us first.”

Whitson said he’s not throwing in the towel and that no decisions have been made. The proposal all came about last year, Whitson said, when a chamber of commerce member asked him if the county would be interested in giving the travel and tourism duties to the chamber. Whitson said he’s not sure if he was asked by the individual, or if the individual was representing the chamber.

Whitson asked if the chamber would be interested in taking the service just for the occupancy tax revenue and said he never received a response. Whitson said he more recently spoke to the chamber’s executive director Janet Sciacca and mentioned that he never received a response on whether or not the chamber would be interested.

“There’s not been any formal proposal,” Whitson said. “I do have a letter from Andy Millard (chamber president) and it will be in the county’s agenda packet Monday night. It has a lot of questions in it. If the board of commissioners tells me to share that information, I will.”

The county received $66,146 during fiscal year 2009-2010 for occupancy tax, according to the county’s finance office, and $66,108 during fiscal year 2008-2009. The county contributed $64,019 to the department during the 2009-2010 budget year, according to the finance office’s amended budget.

The current year’s budget was approved for a total of $135,053, with $64,000 anticipated to come from occupancy tax and $71,053 from the county’s general fund originally. By taking out an administrative position, the county anticipates contributing no more than $55,697.

Whitson said the county, as everyone, is facing difficult economic times and he has to find places to cut.

“I haven’t decided what I’m going recommend (to commissioners for the budget), Whitson said. “But the school system is going to take some pretty big cuts and the county needs to offset some of that. And I’m going to be looking at cuts.”

Board member Sarah Bell asked Monday what other members’ issues are with the chamber taking over the service.

Some members said they fear people who have been working on travel and tourism for years will no longer be heard, particularly those in the accommodation business, who collect the occupancy tax for travel and tourism services.

Board member Stephanie Ott said the Foothills Chamber allowed two hotels in Hendersonville into their chamber and in one year it took hundreds of rooms from bed and breakfasts.

“Why would we want someone who can’t even run a barbecue festival?” Turner asked. “When times get hard, they will throw us in too.”

Travel and tourism board member Laura Weicker, who also serves on the chamber board said the chamber has not yet made a decision. Weicker added that due to her being on the travel and tourism board, she has excused herself from any chamber discussions on the matter.

“The (chamber) board may not even want it,” said Weicker. “All of this is circling the plains like the bomb is about to drop and nothing has been decided yet.”
If the chamber and the county agree to transfer the service, the proposal is for the county to give the chamber its annual hospitality tax funding annually.

Whitson said 75 out of 100 North Carolina counties have travel and tourism services through their chamber of commerce, so Polk County is part of the minority by running its own department.

Polk County’s travel and tourism began sometime in the 1990s with the county providing one employee and the Town of Tryon providing office space at town hall. The office was then run solely on the occupancy tax revenue and volunteer staff.

The travel and tourism advisory board was created around 2001 involving members from the accommodations industry who collects the tax, retail business representatives and a tourism industry representative.

In 2004, the county decided to move the tourism office to the former bank building in Columbus that the county owns. Until the administrative assistant position was recently deleted from the budget, the tourism office was run with two full-time positions plus volunteers and the seven-member tourism advisory board.

Tourism director Melinda Young recently presented to commissioners statistics on the economic impact of tourism for Polk County. Young said in 2009, tourism in Polk County generated an economic impact of $18.67 million, according to state reports. The total represents 170 local jobs, plus $111.14 in tax savings to each county resident.

Polk County’s accommodation providers, such as hotels, bed and breakfasts, inns and short-term rental properties collect a three percent tax on rooms and properties that are rented 90 days or less. The towns of Columbus and Tryon also charge the tax, so in those towns, visitors are charged a six percent hospitality tax.

The City of Saluda does not currently collect its own hospitality tax.

The Polk County Travel and Tourism Advisory Board decided on Monday to draft a letter to commissioners that it wishes to be placed on the county’s agenda to discuss the proposal to transfer travel and tourism to the chamber for the second meeting in March. The board also decided to request that the county allow the board to spend the $10,000 remaining in the budget to approve search engine optimization bids through June 30 and that the county fill the open vacancy on the board.

Whitson said commissioners are not planning on making a decision on the future of travel and tourism during the county’s Monday, Feb. 21 meeting.