Polk’s travel and tourism options grow

Published 6:33 pm Thursday, March 24, 2011

Chamber, EDC and Tryon offer to provide services
Polk County has no lack of options for how to provide travel and tourism services next year.
The tourism department wants to keep the service. The Carolina Foothills Chamber of Commerce, the county’s economic development commission (EDC) and the Town of Tryon have also thrown their names in the hat.
Polk County approached the chamber earlier this year to see if it was interested in taking the service in exchange for approximately $65,000 in annual occupancy taxes. The proposition has resulted in controversy, with many opinions expressed about who should run the department.
The Polk County Board of Commissioners heard Monday, March 21 from accommodations business owners who are members of the Polk County Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, the chamber of commerce, the EDC board, Carl Caudle and Polk County Travel and Tourism Director Melinda Young.
Commissioners also heard opinions from 14 individuals who spoke during citizen comments. A total of 83 people attended the meeting, and the majority were there for the travel and tourism issue.
Polk County Travel and Tourism Board chair Peggy Turner represented the accommodations providers on the board and asked that commissioners “not farm us out.” Turner presented a power point asking the county to keep the brand name (First Peak), logo and website that the board has worked so hard to accomplish.
Accommodations providers also made numerous suggestions to keep the board and tourism office. Some of those suggestions included reducing the staff level in the office to one part-time employee plus volunteers, capping the county’s portion of funding at $20,000 and restructuring the advisory board to a management board.
Chamber president Andy Millard announced that the chamber board recently voted unanimously for the chamber to provide the service.
“We think we are the organization that can do the best job,” Millard said. “There are many stakeholders in travel and tourism and all of us at the chamber have a vested interest in travel and tourism.”
Millard said the chamber has volunteers, the ability to leverage the tax dollars and an office that can be staffed on weekends and Monday holidays. Millard said the chamber will keep the occupancy tax money separate and run a Polk County Travel and Tourism office to promote Polk County tourism, dispelling some people’s fears that Polk County’s money would be spent to promote Landrum since the chamber now also represents with Landrum.
EDC chair Ambrose Mills said the EDC board recommends the county merge the EDC and tourism department and the department be run by a director of economic development and tourism. Mills said it is important to choose a skilled and dynamic director who “can move us forward.” He also said the occupancy tax should be used to benefit all Polk County citizens and businesses and should be managed by a county department.
“I think it should be a county responsibility,” said Mills.
Polk County Manager Ryan Whitson also announced that the county received a letter from the Town of Tryon and the Tryon Tourism Development Authority, which are also interested in providing the service.
“Please accept this correspondence as formal indication of interest from the Town of Tryon/Tryon Tourism Development Authority in providing tourism development services for Polk County,” said the letter, signed by Tryon Mayor Alan Peoples and Tryon Tourism Development Authority Chair Jim Ott.
Tryon is proposing to operate a visitor’s center at the current town manager’s office in town hall, oversee websites and manage advertising, media and events and festivals for Polk County.
Other options came from Young, who said she has prepared three budgets for the county to consider if the county wants to continue to run the department. Young’s budgets include one to run the department as it is currently staffed, which would require $33,308 in county funding (as well as the occupancy tax). Another budget includes reductions that would require $14,993 in county funding on top of the occupancy tax and a third option includes drastic cuts to maintain the department on occupancy tax funding only.
“Obviously tourism is very important to our county,” Young said. “Our purpose is to promote Polk County as a tourism destination.”
Young said the tourism office promotes all relevant businesses at no costs and posts more than 350 events on the website every year.
In December, the tourism office printed 40,000 brochures with maps and information and more than half are gone. Young also said the current office is a great location and had 4,000 visitors in 2010. The lobby is open 24/7 with top brochures and events on display and the office also has volunteers from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Saturdays and holidays as available, according to Young.
Residents expressed varying opinions, with many saying Young has been very helpful and they want to keep the tourism office in its current location. Others said the chamber would do a great job and still others said the EDC and tourism offices should be combined.
“One thing is clear,” Millard said, “whoever gets this is going to be under some serious pressure.”
Commissioner Cindy Walker said the county might also want to consider ceasing collecting the occupancy tax and letting businesses draw tourism without the county’s help. Walker’s idea didn’t receive support from commissioners Monday.
Columbus Town Council also discussed the future of travel and tourism during a council meeting Tuesday, March 22 and decided to draft a letter saying that the town thinks the best location for the department is in Columbus (see article above).
Commissioners decided not to make a decision on the issue yet.
“I’m not sure if we’ll make a decision at the next meeting or after that,” said commissioner chair Ray Gasperson. “Travel and tourism is indeed a major economic driver and engine for Polk County and we have a tough decision, but I’m convinced this board will do its due diligence.”

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