County’s first tourism department Ok’d, but not without opposition

Action to create a first-ever tourism department for Pulaski County was approved Monday night by the Board of Supervisors, but not without opposition.

A vote on the new department passed on a 3-2 vote with supervisors Dirk Compton (Draper) and Charles Bopp (Robinson) casting the dissenting votes.

As Supervisor Chairman Joe Guthrie (Cloyd) began discussion of the proposed new department, Compton interrupted.

“Before we get to far into this, I just want to make a point that we haven’t publicly announced through the papers that we were going to discuss this,” he said, adding that no public comment on the subject had been gathered as well.

“All of a sudden I’m reading in the newspapers that we’ve already approved a tourism department,” Compton said, alluding to a county press release published last week by The Patriot and other media announcing creation of the new department and plans to hire a Tourism Director.

Compton pressed his point that he believes the county should “follow the proper procedure” of advertising that the issue will be discussed and gaining public comment before a decision is made.

Guthrie responded that in the past tourism promotion had been done by the county’s Chamber of Commerce, and that county staff had prepared a concept for the board to consider involving handling tourism in-house with a tourism department.

He added that the board had received public comment earlier in the evening when it heard from four people directly involved in county tourism efforts. Addressing the board in support of a tourism department were Michael Valach of Mountain 2 Island; Chris Doss, Claytor Lake State Park Manager; Adam Fariss, owner of Ironheart Winery, and Sam Sweeney, New River Trail State Park Manager.

County Administrator Jonathan Sweet laid out the reasoning behind creation of a tourism department.

Sweet said the proposed department would be funded through transient occupancy tax revenues gained by the county through tourist spending on lodging and other amounts already targeted for tourism efforts.

According to Sweet, 40 percent of all transient occupancy tax revenue gained must – by state mandate – be reinvested back into local tourism efforts.

“Our tourism industry has asked for a very long time how those monies are spent, and are they being spent effectively – are we getting the biggest bang for our buck,” Sweet told the board.

Up until now, he said, the county has utilized the chamber to deploy the county’s tourism initiatives and “they’ve done a great job at that,” Sweet added.

“With COVID and a variety of other challenges, we’ve looked at when we might answer the call of our tourism and small business industries and launch something that is more specific and more focused for our business community by way of a tourism department,” Sweet said, noting that COVID has presented challenges to the tourism industry, but had also presented opportunities.

Sweet said while tourists haven’t been able to go to football games or couldn’t go to certain gatherings, they have ended up going to places where they can rest and enjoy social distancing while experiencing some of the greatest parts of “God’s country” with cabins and trails and such.

Sweet suggested a tourism department could do more than just invite people to the county. By re-directing funds to such a department, those funds should yield a greater rate of return for both the county’s private enterprises and the county’s coffers.

Aside from funding gained through lodging taxes, other funding for the department, according to Sweet, would come from money provided by the county to the chamber and Visitor’s Center for tourism work, and reimbursement from the Economic Development Authority for tourism. Sweet explained funds from the EDA are not taxpayer money, but rather are lease funds generated by the EDA – a stand-alone private enterprise.

“So, we’re not taking money from other departments,” because of money spent on the tourism department, Sweet explained.

Compton pressed again.

“My question is did we properly advertise this and was there public comment on it,” he asked.

Guthrie responded that since the discussion was not a public hearing, “it doesn’t require advertising it.”

County Attorney Tim Kirtner agreed.

“My issue when I read the papers is it was already a done deal and we were advertising for a Tourism Director to be interviewed in January,” Compton said.

Sweet acknowledged the timing for creating a new department was different than usual, and called the issuance of the county’s press release “perhaps premature.”

Compton said he and Sweet are “good friends.”

“We had a conversation and I told him good people can disagree on things,” Compton noted.

“I appreciate the work he does. I think we have the best county administrator in the nation – bar none,” Compton said of Sweet.

He also praised the Chamber and its director, Peggy White on the job they had done on tourism.

But, he said, there are several projects waiting to be completed in his district, including the Draper Community Park, paving for the Draper Volunteer Fire Department, road signs to be erected and others.

“I want to get these issues done before we put the cart before the horse on this tourism department and its director,” Compton said, noting the cost of adding a department with director’s salary and benefits could rise to around $200,000 a year.

“Right now, everybody is getting their property reassessment notices and that’s the elephant in the room. I just think we can talk about this another time, maybe later down the road when people aren’t seeing reassessments. My issue is I’m not sure it’s right for right now,” Compton said.

Sweet noted the expected salary for the Tourism Director would be less than $60,000.

In making a motion to approve the tourism department proposal, Ingles District Supervisor Laura Walters said tourism is the greatest untapped resource in the county.

“I’ve felt that way for a long time,” she said.

“Two businesses and two state parks were represented here tonight all in favor of this. What the chamber and its staff has done is excellent, but it’s time to take the next step,” she said, adding that diverting funds to a tourism department “isn’t taking money from one thing to put on something else.”

Massie District Supervisor John Travis seconded Walter’s motion, and the issue passed, 3-2.

By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot