Tourism groups eye common ground
By Shelley Smith
Elected officials from Rowan County and Salisbury spent part of Wednesday discussing how to prevent their separate tourism development authorities from competing with each other. Some county commissioners again aired their displeasure with Salisbury’s decision to form its own authority and charge its own hotel room tax.
Commissioners, City Council members and representatives from the Rowan County Tourism Development Authority met with the objective of discussing joint visitor services and marketing between the Rowan and Salisbury tourism development authorities.
The Salisbury City Council voted in September to form its own tourism authority and impose a hotel-motel occupancy tax of up to 3 percent in the city. The decision followed the county’s rejection of a city request earlier this year to double the current countywide 3 percent occupancy tax.
On Wednesday, City Councilman Bill Burgin said the Salisbury tourism authority should work with the current county staff.
“All the capital projects that Salisbury TDA does will be in Rowan County,” Burgin said. “There’s no win on Salisbury’s side that doesn’t include the county.”
Burgin noted that Salisbury has recognized the value of tourist sites outside the city limits and supported them in its budget.
“I think that those sites that get generated in Salisbury will benefit the county,” he said. “… I think the two TDA boards have every reason in the world to combine those resources.”
Burgin said that having two visitor centers would “burn more money” and that the separate tourism authorities would be much stronger with one staff.
Councilman Mark Lewis said if the boards “work together, we can all benefit.”
Commissioners Chairman Carl Ford said he wants to do what’s right for the entire county but said he didn’t like that the city got help from the county tourism staff in developing plans for its own authority.
“The TDA staff helped the city of Salisbury do what they did while they worked for us,” said Ford.
Burgin acknowledged that help, but he said it was “only what the TDA allowed.”
And Lewis said the city “tried to minimize any interaction with the staff.”
Ford expressed reservations.
“We’ve got a lot to look at and a lot to talk about,” he said. “If we do the joint venture, we work equally.”
But Commissioner Tina Hall said she believes the relationship is already unequal and that Salisbury’s tourism authority, for which the city got state legislative approval, “is almost being forced on us.”
Hall said commissioners “felt that in the recession we’re in, it was not a wise time to double the occupancy tax. That was reiterated in e-mails to legislative delegation.”
In considering joint operations now, she said, there are “huge obstacles to overcome because of different ways of looking at things.”
But Commissioner Raymond Coltrain agreed with the City Council members.
“We have two TDAs, and for us not to work together and make it one, it would be a black eye on Rowan County,” Coltrain said. “… It’s not a matter of ‘if’ to me, it’s ‘how.’ ”
Coltrain said Rowan and Salisbury officials should look at other municipalities and counties with the same arrangement and determine how Salisbury and Rowan County can benefit from their experiences.
James Meacham, executive director of the Rowan County Tourism Development Authority, said Johnston and Watauga counties’ tourism development models are similar to the one Salisbury and Rowan are moving toward. He suggested a group go to one of those counties and see how their tourism authorities operate.
“Two visitor centers and two TDAs creates an unneeded competitive environment,” said Meacham. “I’m fearful we’ll get into a situation where Rowan County and Salisbury are competing. … Looking at other communities will help.”
Meacham will plan a trip in the near future for the County Commissioners and Salisbury City Council members to visit a county with similar tourism programs.