Buncombe shares early goals for tourism dollars

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As the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority continues a yearlong project to assess how it divvies up millions of dollars in occupancy tax revenue, Buncombe County government is cooking up a proposal for its own piece of the pie. Tim Love, director of intergovernmental projects, shared preliminary results from the county’s contribution to the Tourism Management & Investment Plan at a June 18 pre-meeting of the Board of Commissioners.

The TDA process aims to shift spending of its Tourism Product Development Fund — the 25% of occupancy tax earmarked for community investment, or roughly $6.75 million this fiscal year — to a longer-term vision. Funding awards are on hold for now as the planning project continues.

Buncombe’s strategic thinking on tourism, Love explained, has focused on “the circulation of tourists to our unique, eclectic and vibrant community destinations.” Compared to the relatively dense city of Asheville, he said, the county’s attractions are spread across 660 square miles and small municipalities such as Montreat, Weaverville and Woodfin.

With that goal in mind, Love listed a number of “core projects” that county staff and municipal partners had tentatively identified as candidates for TDA support. State legislation, he reminded the commissioners, limits occupancy tax spending to brick-and-mortar capital expenses with the potential to generate new overnight stays in Buncombe County.

In Black Mountain, Love suggested, such work could include a quarter-mile of new greenways connecting the town’s existing system with the Montreat Conference Center and its hiking trails. Weaverville could get new greenway-connected trails around a proposed community center at Lake Louise, while Woodfin might see tournament-quality soccer fields built on a former landfill that could be reached by both greenways and the Craggy Mountain Line railroad.

Perhaps the most ambitious project on the docket is a recreation complex on the 45-acre former location of Beacon Manufacturing in Swannanoa. Love said the plan could include up to 12 full-size basketball courts and a sports medicine facility; although the site has been designated as a brownfield by state regulators, he said the property was suitable for non-residential development.

Commissioners thanked county staff members for their work, but several wondered if the TDA’s long-term planning could be expanded beyond individual projects alone. Al Whitesides suggested that the authority’s enabling state legislation could be revisited given the explosive growth of tourism in recent years.

“Nobody thought, back in the ‘80s when this was put in place, that we would have $25 million or more a year coming in,” Whitesides said. “When you look at the number of hotels and motels and the stress they’re putting on the infrastructure in Asheville and Buncombe County, we need to revisit that.”

Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara asked if the TDA would consider a “high-level dialogue” around using occupancy tax money to support infrastructure and core government services in the local communities that tourists visit. Love noted that the topic had been broached but tended to run aground on the limits of the state statute.

“I know that context,” Beach-Ferrara responded. “Tourism brings a lot to this community; it also brings wear and tear and pressure on services. … I would be interested in having a more robust conversation about that.”

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