Beyond the TDA

Yesterday I had the pleasure to be part of a forum hosted by the WNC Green Party called “Beyond the TDA” (need context? see the update here). I probably should have let you dear readers know about it beforehand and invited you to attend, but such is a busy life. You can click here to see a livestream recording thanks to Sunshine Request. The audio is somewhat low, so you may hear better with headphones.

It was a generative conversation, and I was particularly glad that Magaly Urdiales, co-director of the WNC Workers’ Center, was able to bring a group of immigrant women who work in hotel housekeeping and to speak on the inequities they face, including low pay and overwork that the hotel owners profit from. (Thanks to Cenzotle for providing interpretation so they could participate.)

Mathematician Geoff Kemmish shared some eye opening data around low wages in the tourism industry, how most of the money generated by tourism goes out of Asheville, and how the BCTDA spends twice as much as other NC TDAs, yet only generates the same number of jobs (hopefully I’ll have a way to link to his slides soon).

Activist and writer Matilda Bliss offered insights from her research, and Jay Weatherly, co-owner of High Five Coffee, spoke from the perspective of a business that has spoken up for abolishing the TDA. He talked beautifully how investing in local community is the best form of advertising. Andrew Celwyn, TDA Board Member and Candidate for County Commissioner contributed some nuts and bolts from his perspective. There were some excellent audience questions and good conversation. Let’s keep raising our voices about this issue.

With Magaly Urdiales of the WNC Workers’ Center. Photo: JMPRO TV

For the record, here are the introductory remarks I made at the event:

My name is Ami Worthen, my pronouns are she and her. Western North Carolina has been my home since I was a child. I’m a writer, collaborator, and musician dedicated to collective liberation. Everything I do is out of love.

My work in community has exposed me to the pain caused by systemic oppression and inequities. My path to connecting my work to the topic of the TDA began with reading Matilda Bliss’s “Tourism machine” article in the Asheville Blade. It exposed me to the rotten roots of the occupancy tax. Inspired by her work and a conversation with David Forbes, I wrote “Abolish the TDA” for the Asheville Blade, followed by an op-ed for the Citizen-Times which brought this issue to the forefront of community conversations. 

In my piece for the Blade, I discuss the history of tourism in this area, and how our visitors have always been wealthy white people. We know the systems that allow for some to have excess wealth rely on exploiting people and the planet. Being a tourism destination that caters to those who are ok with having more than their fair share has not led us to greater equity, cultural diversity, or environmental sustainability. Quite the opposite. 

Today the TDA continues to court rich visitors, and brags about the dollars they spend here, without naming into whose pockets the bulk of this money is actually going. Nor do they make any acknowledgement of the harm being caused by the unchecked growth of this industry. Instead, they advocate for more growth. 

Buncombe County’s occupancy tax was established during a time when Asheville’s downtown was economically depressed. While there is a spin that the tax was implemented for the greater good, in reality it was designed to benefit those who would profit from increased tourism, particularly hotel owners. These businessmen supported the tax because the revenue generated was to be spent on marketing to build their businesses, and their businesses specifically. From its inception, the whole operation has been controlled by a handful of vested interests who have mutually beneficial relationships state legislators. There was absolutely nothing built into the foundation of the tax to ensure equitable or sustainable outcomes. 

If the goal of establishing the TDA was to bring more people to a stagnant city center, we can all agree that that mission has been accomplished. Which leads us to ask, if it has met its goal, why are we allowing this entity to continue? 

Luchadorxs Unidxs. Workers United.

Moreover, why have we given so much power to an industry that does not offer good pay or benefits? Only one of the 9 businesses represented on the TDA board is registered as a Living Wage employer with Just Economics. Not to mention the struggles for workers in this industry that Magaly will be sharing. As taxpayers, our money is going to social services to help people who are not being paid enough by these hotels and to subsidize the infrastructure being strained by tourism. The injustice of this is clear.

We have been over feeding an extractive industry while starving ourselves. 

The county commissioners need to repeal the occupancy tax immediately because the damage being caused by the current configuration is real and compounding daily. We must stop the bleeding and take the power away from an organization that refuses to own their responsibility for the ills of hotel-focused overtourism. 

Then we can advocate for what we want instead. 

If the origin story of the occupancy tax is that it was established to grow tourism, wouldn’t it follow that now that tourism growth has happened, it is time to change the use of the tax in order to mitigate infrastructure and affordability issues caused by this growth? 

I agree with those calling for 100% of the occupancy tax to go to community needs, with 0% for marketing. And for decisions about how the tax revenue is spent to be made by a representative board of impacted community members, not those who profit from “heads in beds.”

This is possible if enough of us speak up, and vote accordingly. 


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