First and foremost, the occupancy tax collected by the county and spent by the TDA needs to change.
Currently, the Buncombe County TDA spends a higher percentage of its budget on marketing and advertising than any other TDA in the state. This has been the case for many years and it needs to end. Our TDA is too focused on short-term results and not enough on long-term spending to strengthen our community.
As a board member on the TDA for the past two years, I have learned that there is a real desire among those in the hospitality industry (lodging, restaurants, attractions) to invest more in our community. Surveys taken at the annual hospitality summit show that many want our TDA to do more. I’ve also spoken with fellow board members on the TDA who would like to see more done, but can’t agree or don’t have the will to publicly make a change.
Significant change to this tax is going to be hard. There are moneyed interests, both in the form of lobbying groups like the North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association and some long-standing local hoteliers with strong connections to elected officials, whose voices are going to make substantial change very difficult.
Discussions about the occupancy tax are heating up. In the next six months, an olive branch may be offered by the TDA in the form of a slight decrease in the marketing dollars with some money directed towards additional city and county projects. It’s not enough. We need a deal that’s better for Buncombe.
My approach would be to have money directed towards two of the biggest issues that come up again and again in every community survey: housing and transportation. We need occupancy tax dollars to go directly to help housing affordability, whether as incentives for developers for lower cost housing, community land trusts, or direct spending with not-for-profit groups creating inexpensive housing. We also need occupancy dollars to go directly towards transportation. In addition to expanding bus service hours to better accommodate late-night workers, we should have a circulator bus to make it easier for both residents and workers to access downtown from free parking areas. It would both reduce the costs for workers who have to pay to park downtown as well as making it easier for residents to enjoy many parts of the city without worrying about parking. Both would be a huge win for our community.
You may not trust me because I’ve served on the TDA board. Know that Asheville City Council members appointed me specifically because I wanted to get a better deal for our community. Take a look at my record on the board: I speak up when there were issues that need attention. For example during a vote to increase bonuses for marketing staff, I was the only person objecting to using tax dollars to pay these bonuses while other employees paid with tax dollars such as teachers, firefighters, and police receive none. You can also view a recent op-ed that I wrote about problems with how the TDA handled funding local events.
Taking a stand against how the TDA spends the occupancy tax isn’t a stand against tourism. As someone with a retail store in Asheville and close contact with many small business owners and community members, I see how many benefit from the tourism whether through having jobs or being able to pay their employees better because of tourist sales. Still that doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t do better. As someone with a deep knowledge of this issue and the ways in which other communities have addressed it, I’m one of the best people out there to negotiate better deal for Buncombe County.