How Buncombe’s Tourism Board is spending dollars designed to lure visitors
At its March 22 meeting the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority announced the recipients of this year’s Tourism Project Development Fund (TPDF) grants, funded by the county’s built-in hotel room tax. The winners were:
- The Asheville Downtown Association: $50,000 for construction of a permanent canopy at the Pack Square stage area;
- The UNCA Foundation: $500,000 for outdoor lighting for its baseball and soccer fields; and
- The U.S. Cellular Center: $800,000 for further improvements, in addition to the $1,375,000 awarded to the Center by the TDA last year.
“We had a box full of grant applications – fifteen in all, the most we’ve ever had – that we had to evaluate this year,” said TPDF committee chair Jeff Covington. Covington said his committee first narrowed the applicant field to eight, from which they selected the three grant recipients.
Prior to announcement of the grant recipients, TDA Executive Director Stephanie Pace Brown walked board members through its existing cash position as well as projected cash flow and suggested cash reserves. Her numbers showed more than $3.7 million in total cash on hand, of which about $772,000 is a state-mandated prudent reserve and therefore off the table for allocation purposes. Brown’s figures showed a pool of $2.2 million available for “one-time investments,” leaving the remainder for “unbudgeted opportunities” and “crisis communications … in case we have another rock slide or another 9/11.” Her presentation suggested increasing this contingency reserve from eight to fifteen per cent, or about $900,000.
The $2.2 million cash pool, even after the three grants awarded, still has a substantial balance, not counting the other reserve monies, and does not include projected room tax income for this year. According to TDA, “collected occupancy tax generates approximately $1.8 million of room tax revenue for the TPDF per year.” Thus, several TDA members wondered aloud why all the existing pool funds were not being used for additional grant awards, and especially for projects that could generate immediate income.
“Why are we building a huge reserve? It’s just sitting there,” said member Steve Frabitore, proprietor of Tupelo Honey Cafes. “We’re tasked with putting this money to work.”
“It’s not our money,” said another member. “We need to make the room tax work as hard as it can.”
Brown stated she believes – and her proposed budget reflects – that aggressive marketing, including a broad-based advertising effort, is the key to “putting heads in beds” in Buncombe County.
At that point a motion was made to table further budgetary discussion. The motion passed.
An applicant who didn’t make the cut speaks out
The legislation that established the TDA in 1983 allows it to “contract with any person, firm, or agency to advise and assist it in the promotion of travel, tourism, and conventions,” and according to TDA’s website FAQ’s, “Projects are judged based on their ability to create substantial new and incremental overnight stays in Buncombe County thus creating a significant overall economic impact on the community.” Nevertheless, records show that since the TPDF began funding projects, it has only awarded three grants to for-profit projects, one of which “never got off the ground.”
That didn’t stop the Asheville Event Centre from applying for a $750,000 grant – roughly half the projected cost of an addition to its facility to house its new dinner show attraction.
The Centre is owned and operated by Katherine Corn, of the Iwanna publishing family, and is housed in the old Iwanna Printing plant on Sweeten Creek Road, transformed some years ago into a state-of-the-art banquet, reception and meeting venue with its own catering capability. Plans call for developing the remaining 2000 square feet of unused space in the building specifically to produce the Blue Ridge Mountain Opry Show, a barbecue-and-bluegrass event designed to run weekly from April through December and featuring Whitewater Bluegrass, one of WNC’s best-known string bands.
“I have to say I was flabbergasted that we got turned down considering what we have to offer and the way we presented it [to TDA],” said Gilda Wright, the Centre’s Event Director. “We spent $7,000 on a professional grant application that showed to the penny what the money would be used for and what the anticipated return would be. For instance, they wanted shovel-ready projects for consideration. Ours isn’t just shovel-ready, the building already exists – and we’ve also paid $10,000 to the city for our remodeling permits.
“We’ve been working hand in glove with the Chamber to develop this idea and the Chamber loves it,” Wright said. “When we started our planning a year ago, they said, ‘This is what we need here.’ They supported our idea so much that in January they asked the Blue Ridge Opry dinner show to be the opening act at the American Bus Association expo in Charlotte. They even paid for part of our expenses. And while we were in Charlotte we got bites from 176 tour operators and 14 tour bus commitments. We have 33 tour buses booked already and we’re not even open yet. The point is that we were able to show TDA that we are already a going concern and that we are capable of putting ‘heads in beds.’ There are more than a thousand tour buses that come through here every year and this demonstrates we can get a bunch of them to come down Sweeten Creek Road, see our show and spend the night, and not go straight on through and spend that money in Dollywood.”
The Blue Ridge Opry proposal, however, was blackballed in the first round of TPDF Committee voting. The Asheville Event Centre received a brief, boilerplated letter stating that the number of applications received for 2013 “greatly exceeded available funds,” and that “the committee selected those projects which best demonstrated the potential to be a driver of overnight room stays in Buncombe County, and presented the greatest return on investment.”
“It’s like they hadn’t paid attention to a thing we said or wrote,” Wright said. “I wondered if they had somehow misunderstood what they saw. I even called them back and asked them to reconsider. They said nobody had ever done that.
“How does a canopy at Pack Square put heads in beds?” Wright asked. “The people under that canopy are already sleeping somewhere, and anyway most of them are local. How often will there be night baseball and soccer at UNCA, and how many heads in beds will that generate? As for the U.S. Cellular Center, maybe they think we’re competition for their event and catering business and they need to protect that. They’ve already given it [the Center] over two million dollars in the last three years and now they’re giving it $800,000 more.”
A news release issued by TDA following announcement of the grant recipients said, “Rather than look at current visitation and demand, the TPDF committee’s role is to assess a project’s ability to increase room nights and anticipated return on investment. We look at all aspects of the project application to determine whether the business or organization can successfully meet the room night projections provided in the application …”
The same news release quoted TDA Chairman Ron Morin, VP/General Manager of Grove Park Inn, as saying, “The TPDF dollars are an economic incentive tool to not only grow the hotel and tourism industry, but also build assets that promote quality of life and community resources.”
Morin’s comments did not appear to square with a September, 2011 TDA news release which stated, “The TPDF was established to provide financial assistance for tourism capital projects that will significantly increase overnight room stays in Buncombe County and, subsequently, create a greater economic benefit for the entire community.”
During the TDA meeting, Morin was among those who questioned why the TPDF committee did not spend all the money it had at its disposal on grant allocations. At that time, committee chairman replied that only three recipients had, in the committee’s opinion, met its criteria.