Op-ed published in the Asheville Citizen-Times, November 2019.
This is a call for the Buncombe County Commissioners to repeal the occupancy tax and end the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority (TDA). Since being established in 1983, the TDA has grown into a giant institution that does more harm than good. Our community would be better off without it.
As a significant part of our local economy, I am not advocating against tourism per se – I am advocating against the existence of a tourism-driving entity that has incredible power, a narrow agenda, unsustainable outcomes, and no real checks and balances for their actions.
A bit of background: the state statute that allows counties and municipalities to collect an occupancy tax requires the creation of TDA. It also requires that two-thirds of the tax revenue be spent on promotion, with remainder to be used for tourism-related projects. There is no provision for general needs like infrastructure. Rather than adhering to the 2/3 guideline, Buncombe County’s TDA has set 75% of their budget for marketing, with 25% for tourism-related projects. Currently our 6% occupancy tax (the highest percent allowed) generates around $20 million a year, which means the TDA spends around $14 million on marketing.
It is troubling to learn that this huge pot of money is controlled by a small appointed board of only nine voting members – six who run hotels, and three who run businesses which benefit from tourism. There is no system of accountability for this board.
Following historical patterns, the TDA has focused its efforts on attracting wealthy visitors, with target demographics such as “elite empty nesters.” This over-funded outreach to an upper class audience has contributed to intense gentrification in our area, which has caused a lack of affordable housing and related hardships for working class people and those on fixed incomes. It has exacerbated racial inequities. Meanwhile the tourism industry is not creating significant numbers of high paying jobs.
Exponential growth in tourism has also contributed to rapid development and its subsequent negative environmental impacts. We are seeing the effects on our water, utilities, tree canopy, etc. Not to mention pollution from traffic, including tour buses/vans/trolleys. With over 30,000 people visiting each day, the wear and tear on our resources is significant.
The teams that manage the multi-million dollar messaging about Asheville and Buncombe County do not represent the range of people who live here. The TDA’s all-white Explore Asheville staff are charged with the goal of filling hotel rooms. They spend big bucks hiring marketing firms from out of town to develop slogans to sell us. The authentic cultural ecosystem that exists here is not a factor in their process. Our community is commodified, packaged, and sold without our input and to our detriment.
Ending the TDA will not end tourism. Fears that we will return to the desolate downtown of the 1980s are unfounded – we have the internet and social media now. We are well known. There are thousands of businesses benefiting from tourism which are already marketing themselves, and will continue. Without the TDA monopolizing Buncombe County’s brand, there could be space for more voices to tell our story.
The TDA is quick to rattle off numbers about the revenue generated by tourism. But at what cost? If we could quantify the value of what we have lost by growing tourism in such a top-down, irresponsible manner, I believe it would far exceed the revenue numbers.
As long as state law requires occupancy tax to be used by a TDA on destination promotion and products, I say we turn off the hose that’s drowning us. Yes, ending the occupancy tax could financially favor corporate hoteliers who could keep their room rates at current levels. But the ability of the TDA to shape our community to their benefit would be gone.
Some suggest that, instead of repealing the occupancy tax, we lobby state legislators to change what it can be used for. With our state government as it is, this would likely be a long and arduous process, wherein a repeal can happen locally with a majority vote from the commissioners. Their action could quickly eliminate the current problems with the TDA. Then, if so desired, state-level advocacy for an alternative configuration could be undertaken.
The TDA’s current slogan is “Tourism Builds Community.” I beg to differ. In order for people who live here to thrive, we need to be building with each other, not courting rich visitors.
By making the bold move to repeal the occupancy tax, the Buncombe County Commissioners can shift our current trajectory towards greater balance and generative possibilities.
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