Land deal will di­vert tourism fund­ing

The Herald (Rock Hill) - - Front Page - BY JOHN MARKS [email protected]­mill­times.com

The pur­chase of a new 1,900acre recre­ation site in York County could mean no more NCAA cross coun­try re­gion­als. No more na­tional level high school bas­ket­ball or foot­ball show­cases, says the man largely re­spon­si­ble for get­ting those events here.

“I sup­port the land pur­chase,” said Billy Dun­lap, pres­i­dent and CEO of the York County visitors bureau, “just not at our peril.”

The York County Coun­cil voted Mon­day night to ap­prove a $21 mil­lion pur­chase of 1,900 acres along the Catawba River, off Neely Store Road near Rock Hill.

Four days ear­lier, Dun­lap learned the deal would mean a $600,000 cut -- in the form of hospi­tal­ity tax rev­enue -- from county money his group would get over the next 18 months.

To­tal fund­ing for the Rock Hill/York County Con­ven­tion and Visitors Bureau would drop from $1.4 mil­lion to $800,000, he said.

“The cur­rent plan will crip­ple the CVB and dev­as­tate tourism in York County,” Dun­lap said.

The county now gives the visitors bureau $900,000 each year.

“Re­duc­ing our Htax fund­ing to $300,000 will dev­as­tate the CVB,” Dun­lap said. “That $600,000 cut will also have a rip­ple ef­fect for ho­tels, restau­rants, at­trac­tions and more.”

The county has 12 new ho­tels com­ing in the next two years.

“They’re look­ing for us to help them meet their sup­ply and de­mand needs,” Dun­lap said. “Three years down the road, we’ll be won­der­ing where all the tourism dol­lars went.”

Dun­lap said the land pur­chase it­self isn’t the is­sue. The prop­erty would be an­other amenity for Dun­lap’s group to pro­mote.

“It’s unique to have the op­por­tu­nity to pur­chase land that is go­ing to be used for tourism pur­poses, but then cut the tourism agency by $600,000 an­nu­ally in their bud­get,” he said. “To cut the or­ga­ni­za­tion 43 per­cent to pur­chase that land.”

Coun­cil­man Chad Wil­liams said there may be ways to pay for the river­front prop­er­ties that wouldn’t weaken county tourism.

“That’s my big­gest con­cern about this (land pur­chase), is crip­pling one or­ga­ni­za­tion to do this,” Wil­liams said. “I think it’s pos­si­ble to do it with­out crip­pling that or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

AL­TER­NA­TIVE FUND­ING

How­ever, not all coun­cil mem­bers see the de­ci­sion as dire.

“I would like for us to un­der­stand how other CVBs are funded and make sure that we’re do­ing that re­spon­si­bly,” said Coun­cil­woman Christi Cox.

Coun­cil­woman Allison Love, whose dis­trict cov­ers Lake Wylie, said she would be will­ing to give up a fish­ing tour­na­ment or two for the river­front prop­erty pur­chase. Love said she be­lieves the visitors bureau could go an­other route for fund­ing and likely come out ahead of where it is now.

Kevin Mad­den, as­sis­tant county man­ager in charge of fi­nance, said other parts of the state don’t fund their visitors bu­reaus the way York County does.

“Of the top 10 coun­ties, we’re the only one that gave a ded­i­cated source of fund­ing from our hospi­tal­ity taxes,” he said.

In­stead, most such bu­reaus re­ceive money from a fee of up to 2 per­cent on bills for ho­tel stays.

“In a nut­shell, they earn it,” Mad­den said. “The other CVBs — Greenville, Columbia, Charleston — they get the lion’s share of their money with agree­ments with ho­tels that they work with on their events.”

Mad­den said he be­lieves the same struc­ture would, and should, work here.

“Where there are al­ready ho­tels will­ing to line up and par­tic­i­pate and do that, that our CVB go out and get the money that way,” he said. “Earn their fund­ing. We right now are an anom­aly with the way we fund our CVB.”

County hospi­tal­ity tax rev­enue is a 2 per­cent charge on food and drink in un­in­cor­po­rated ar­eas. Ac­com­mo­da­tions tax is a charge on overnight stays at ho­tels, bed and break­fasts and the like. Most of the money from both, Mad­den said, has gone to the visitors bureau.

“I do not have any guilt about a dras­tic cut to the CVB,” he said.

Dun­lap said tourism is an eco­nomic driver, im­pact­ing ev­ery York County ci­ti­zen. Now is not the time, he said, to re­duce fund­ing.

“Get­ting events to come here is com­pet­i­tive,” he said. “It’s all about fa­cil­i­ties and money. Our fa­cil­i­ties stack up with any­one, but our fund­ing does not.”

Rock Hill and York County com­pete with Greenville, Columbia, Myr­tle Beach and Charleston. Those visitors bu­reaus, Dun­lap said, op­er­ate on bud­gets of $ 7.8 mil­lion-$40 mil­lion.

The fund­ing cut would put York County, home to the fifth largest city in the state and four of the top 50, be­hind com­mu­ni­ties like Florence and Ge­orge­town as the 12th high­est funded, he said.

“Com­mu­ni­ties that are much smaller than us,” Dun­lap said. “We’re be­hind com­mu­ni­ties that want to be us. And it’s not a fair fight.”

HOW THE MONEY IS SPENT

The bureau spends money on re­cruit­ing events, which in­cludes money to event or­ga­niz­ers, which it looks to more than re­coup from ho­tel stays, restau­rant vis­its and stops at places like Carowinds and Brat­tonsville.

This year, Dun­lap’s group will spend $270,000 to bring sports events or meet­ings to the county.

“That is money di­rectly given to an or­ga­ni­za­tion to get them to come here,” he said. “That does not ac­count for the time or money spent to re­cruit them. That is just hard cost to have the event.”

That money can be a bid fee, fa­cil­ity rental or re­lated costs.

The visitors group planned to spend $274,800 for the com­ing year, and has some events booked as far out as 2022. The larger the event, typ­i­cally the more money it takes to bring it here.

The FBU Top Gun high school foot­ball show­case was the big­gest for the vis­i­tor bureau this year. The bureau paid $130,000. The bureau es­ti­mates a $2.4 mil­lion eco­nomic im­pact in­clud­ing $1.6 mil­lion in di­rect vis­i­tor spend­ing.

The bureau also paid $30,000 for the Bat­tle at the Rock high school bas­ket­ball event, $12,500 for the NCAA cross coun­try re­gional and $5,000 for the QCAA Rum­ble bas­ket­ball event.

The bureau doesn’t pay events to come, Dun­lap said, un­less re­turn on in­vest­ment fig­ures show more money gen­er­ated than spent.

Pay­ments al­ready have gone out to events for the com­ing year, which in­clude the SIAC bas­ket­ball cham­pi­onships ($50,000), SIAC cross coun­try and track and field cham­pi­onships ($30,000), USA Flag Foot­ball Na­tion­als ($20,000) and USA Vol­ley­ball A2 In­vi­ta­tional ($10,000).

Dun­lap said his group is on pace for a record $20 mil­lion in eco­nomic im­pact this year. Just this past week­end, some of the top ranked high school bas­ket­ball teams and play­ers in the coun­try came to Na­tion Ford High School for the Bat­tle at the Rock. The event sold out Satur­day night, which in­cluded a visit from NBA leg­end Allen Iver­son.

Plans are to hold the event in the new in­door sports arena in Rock Hill next year.

A dozen new ho­tels will cre­ate a 30 per­cent in­crease in ho­tel room sup­ply.

Typ­i­cally the vis­i­tor bureau works sev­eral years out to re­cruit events. Dun­lap said the fund­ing change brought on by the land sale would make those ef­forts more dif­fi­cult.

“So now we are ba­si­cally year to year on fund­ing,” he said. “Not a very se­cure space to re­side.”

Most vis­i­tor bu­reaus, Dun­lap said, get ac­com­mo­da­tions tax money from coun­ties and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

Be­cause Rock Hill has a parks, recre­ation and tourism de­part­ment, ho­tels in the city route much of the money there, rather than to the coun­ty­wide vis­i­tor bureau, he said.

“That leaves us with lim­ited rev­enue,” Dun­lap said.

“There’s not enough money to bring those large events here. We end up bring­ing smaller events, and that’s less heads in beds. We’ve got 12 new ho­tels com­ing, and they are depending on us. We’ve al­ready met with them. And they’re up­set about where we’re at now go­ing for­ward.”

Still, the coun­cil has ap­proved a plan that would route hospi­tal­ity tax money to the new prop­erty on the Catawba River.

Only Coun­cil­man Robert Win­kler, who voiced con­cerns on a lack of de­tails for how the prop­erty would be used and funded, voted against it.

Mad­den said he be­lieves us­ing hospi­tal­ity tax money to pay back bonds for the land pur­chase is the best route.

“That is the way we plan on pay­ing for this,” he said.

Win­kler said it was just a few months ago when the county set course on a plan to be debt free in six years. He said cit­i­zens told him they sup­ported the idea but had con­cerns some new pro­ject would pop up and have the county bor­row­ing again.

“Guess what?” Win­kler said. “It didn’t take six years for us to find a re­ally good pro­ject to now put us to where we will not be debt-free un­til well past the time we promised you just a few months ago.”

Also, hospi­tal­ity tax money has strict rules on how it can be used. It has to be spent on projects pro­mot­ing tourism, which is why much of it his­tor­i­cally went to the visitors bureau.

With­out know­ing what might be built on the new prop­erty, Win­kler has con­cerns the hospi­tal­ity tax may not be ap­pli­ca­ble.

“Depending on some of the uses it could be used for, the county might have to pay back some Htax money,” he said.

For now, the con­sen­sus on coun­cil and among county staff lead­ers is the pro­ject fits.

“Those hospi­tal­ity tax dol­lars come from the un­in­cor­po­rated area,” Mad­den said. “This is an un­in­cor­po­rated area pro­ject.”

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