Transform tourism? TDA accountability?

I begin with gratitude for the community care I have been witnessing, grief for the losses we are experiencing (and have experienced), and continued hope for a just transition. While today’s post adds to my ongoing commentary on a certain topic, I also want to share this piece by Movement Generation about “Permanently Organized Communities,” which points to what it means to “navigate a just transition from a ‘Banks & Tanks’ economy to economies of sacredness and care in this emerging COVID-19 moment.”

Transform Tourism?

As local businesses have been forced to cease or limit their offerings, and jobs and financial stability have been lost, many are pointing to the ways our community’s dependency on tourism has made us particularly vulnerable in this moment. As WLOS-TV recently reported, “A study done by ecommerce website Volusion said Asheville ranked No. 9 for mid-size cities where workforces at-large have faced severe economic layoffs, furloughs and store closings because of coronavirus. The report pointed to the city’s large contingent of retail, hospitality and leisure workers.” And, since the bulk of tourism-based service-industry jobs are low-pay and without benefits, it will be even harder for those workers to weather this blow. Our public social services, which were already subsidizing this industry, now have to do so on an even greater scale.

There is a narrative that our local economy has always relied on tourism and so it will necessarily be our route to recovery.

We can question predictions made during a moment of complete uncertainty that focus on a return to the status quo.

Since tourism is an industry that has dramatically crashed before and will crash again, can we all agree that it would benefit our community to at least curb the level of our addiction to it? Can we admit that the climate crisis has changed the context of leisure travel? That there is a real need to truly diversify and localize our economic ecosystem?

For the sake of argument – if tourism’s return to WNC is inevitable (which of course there is no way to know for sure), what it would mean transform our relationship with tourism in ways that enhance equity, economic justice, worker’s rights, and environmental sustainability? Is that even possible?

TDA Accountability?

If possible, such a shift would require many radical changes, including an overhaul of the occupancy tax in terms of what that money can be used for and who decides how it’s spent.

If we are to transform tourism, we can longer have millions of tax-generated advertising dollars controlled by a small board with narrow priorities and no real accountability to the public. Currently the majority of TDA board members own or run hotels which are part of multinational corporate chains. And only one company represented on the board is a certified living wage employer. It seems immoral to let companies that profit off of underpaid labor use county taxes to build their businesses. Yet that is what has been happening here for decades.

The overhaul cannot happen in this moment, but meeting emergency needs can.

At their last meeting, the TDA board approved $50,000 for the One Buncombe Fund (in comparison, they are still paying an out-of-town marketing firm a $110,000/month retainer). They also confirmed their plans to hold millions in reserves to spend on advertising after the COID-19 crisis has passed. During the meeting, TDA board members did not mention the 85 pages of public comment calling for them to release funds to support community members.

Last week Sen. Chuck Edwards announced a bill, supported by a couple of TDA board members, to designate 5 million dollars of the Tourism Product Development Fund (TPDF) for grants for businesses that provide “direct experiences for visitors.” Under this proposal, “eligible applicants can receive up to $50,000 directed toward the restart of their business once the recovery begins, and it is safe to operate or resume full operations, in turn providing jobs and allowing workers to return to the workforce.” Workers that I guess they think can somehow just ride through this time unemployed and unsupported by the industry that has profited on their labor.

Since the TPDF is the 25% of the occupancy tax that is designated for community infrastructure and grants, this offer is disingenuous at best. Leaving advertising reserves untouched, this bill would mean TDA could use community-designated TPDF monies to support the businesses they deem worthy, thus further shaping our local economy and culture. There is every reason to believe grants would go to those that cater to the target demographics that the TDA was saturating us with before the pandemic. There is little to lead us to expect that there would be selection criteria related to equity, living wage certification, or green practices.

As evidenced over and over, hoteliers believe the occupancy tax money is theirs to use to their own benefit. Edwards even says in his press release,”“For them to dedicate funding to help other businesses, funding that would otherwise go to promote their own – shows their sincerity and commitment to our community.” Of course that statement is misleading since the TPDF funding in question is not their advertising/promotion dollars (though the TPDF is allocated with their own business promotion in mind). As long as the hoteliers continue to be supported at a state level in this false belief, the case gets stronger for the county to repeal the occupancy tax.

While we can celebrate that public pressure has been successful in getting these powers that be to offer some kind of restorative action, clearly this proposal is insufficient, takes from the wrong pot of money, is not community-led, and provides no immediate support. A better bill is needed.

And here are the email addresses of our state legislators, county commissioners, and city council: Edwardsla@ncleg.net, Terry.VanDuyn@ncleg.net, Susan.Fisher@ncleg.net, Brian.Turner@ncleg.net, John.Ager@ncleg.net, brownie.newman@buncombecounty.org, jasmine.beach-ferrara@buncombecounty.org, anthony.penland@buncombecounty.org, alfred.whitesides@buncombecounty.org, amanda.edwards@buncombecounty.org, joe.belcher@buncombecounty.org, robert.pressley@buncombecounty.org, AshevilleNCCouncil@ashevillenc.gov

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UPDATE: The bill passed, here’s an AVL Watchdog story about it. We’ll keep working to dismantle the TDA. Onward.

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In the meantime, the badass Asheville Survival Program is having a donation drive this Saturday, May 2 from noon until 5 at 1001 Patton Ave.:

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