The importance of tourism was the point of discussion during the Ashe County Planning Board’s scheduled meeting on Thursday, July 10.
Ramona Renfroe, chair of the Tourism Development Committee (TDC) gave a presentation to the Planning Board specifying what tourism means for Ashe County’s stability.
“When we stop and think about tourism, we have to stop and think, ‘What does it really do for us?’” Renfroe said. “What have you done for me lately?”
Renfroe began the presentation by defining a tourist, which in Ashe County means anybody who travels 30 miles or more for business or pleasure.
“Anybody who is coming (to Ashe County) and scouting to put a business in here, they are coming in as a tourist,” she said. “They are spending money to stay overnight, or eat at or restaurants or even do a little shopping.”
In 2012, tourists spent $46.55 million in Ashe County, which was 2.67 percent more than spent in 2011. Averaged out, the amount of new money coming into Ashe County daily was $127,543 through tourism.
Of that $46.55 million, $6.58 million was worker payroll, $2.35 million was state taxes paid and $2.45 million was local taxes paid. Most importantly, the money from tourism translated to $405.45 per household, that year-round Ashe County residents did not have to pay.
“That is money that we don’t have to pay, because the tourism dollars are paying for us,” Renfroe said.
Renfroe said tourism has increased beautification projects in Ashe County, including revitalizing downtown West Jefferson and the expansion of the Lansing Creeper Trail Park. Also, tourism has influenced relocation decisions including Art of Oil and other downtown shops, as well as GE Aviation.
“When (GE) was looking at places to locate, they sent people here, looked at all of the information that we had and all of the services that we offer,” Renfroe said. “When looking at these larger corporations and luring them in, tourism is our first step. That is the gateway.”
Renfroe also emphasized that tourism will not only create new jobs, but those jobs can not be outsourced to other states or countries. Jobs in the tourism industry can range from part-time, entry level work to professional careers.
The more people come and visit the area, will also mean more money for the county and town of West Jefferson in relation to occupancy tax. As more visitors come, more hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts will come to provide tourists a place to stay, while restaurants, shops and venues will support quality of life and new business.
Planning Board Vice Chair Darrell Hamilton asked Renfroe what she would advise the board to do as they are working on a land use plan. Renfroe said the county needs to promote the things it already has.
“It’s looking at the things that are really valuable to us,” Renfroe said. “I know that for tourism, we don’t want to be all things to all people. We want to look at the things that are really valuable to us and focus on growing or maintaining those things.”
After Renfroe’s presentation, Cabot Hamilton, executive director of the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce also talked to the Planning Board.
“You are a planning committee, and you can play a huge part in the development and direction that (Ashe County) is going to go in,” he said. “I will say the tourism committee in the last two-to-three years has been the most active committee that we have in the Chamber.”
For instance, the tourism committee helped the Chamber of Commerce come up with the slogan “The Coolest Corner of North Carolina” for the organization’s website.
“Tourism is an economic driving force for Ashe County, and it has been for quite some time,” Hamilton said. “Small business entreprenuers need to be courted, that is going to be a major, driving force.”
Also, Hamilton noted how important the tax money coming from tourism in the county is to benefiting the residents.
“If the money earned from the money spent by the tourists did not bring in that tax benefit, the county commissioners would either have to raise taxes to get the same amount of benefits, or cut the benefits,” Hamilton said. “I tell people to hug a tourist, we love them.”
Wil Petty can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or on Twitter @WilPetty.