With another gorgeous high country spring just around the corner, the recent bankruptcy filing of Hampton Inn in West Jefferson will make the local tourism development authority’s mission more difficult.
“The natural consequence, (of the bankruptcy) is that we won’t be able to grant as many requests – it’ll be necessary to limit our grants,” said West Jefferson Tourism Development Authority Chair Carol Dodson. “It’ll also hurt things like signage. I’d like to have seasonal banners (for the lightpoles in West Jefferson) for things like leaf season, but we won’t be able to.”
The company that owns Hampton, Trimurthi Hotels Land Holdings WJ, LLC, filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy on Dec. 1, 2011, in North Carolina Western Bankruptcy Court.
Dodson said approximately 75 percent of the West Jefferson TDA’s funding comes from the Hampton Inn of West Jefferson. The organization is authorized by the state to collect a 3 percent occupancy tax from any room for rent within the municipal limits of West Jefferson, since 2005.
Dodson said the collections from Hampton Inn, paid to the TDA quarterly, averaged between $2,500 and $3,000 per month, depending upon the number of guests that stayed at the Hampton in a given month.
“It’s going to make things tighter going forward,” said Dodson.
Authorized in 2005 by the North Carolina General Assembly, the TDA’s mission is to, “Promote and guide West Jefferson’s tourism offerings.”
Essentially, the TDA’s job is to draw more eyes, and more tourists, to West Jefferson and Ashe County. Dodson said the organization has to strike a balance between providing information and straight marketing.
The TDA utilizes a five member board of directors. State statutes require that at least two of the board members be collectors of occupancy tax (Ernest O’Banion, owner of Nation’s Inn, and Vivian Miller, of Ashe High Country). The remaining members of the board include Carol Dodson, board chair and owner of CMJ Properties and former owner of Tis The Season, Danny Jones of Hobby Barn, and Josh Williams of Ashe Cheese.
In the past, the TDA has utilized rack cards and brochures, and web-based video highlights of West Jefferson to brand the town. The group has also found billboards to be an effective use of marketing dollars; in August and September of last year, the TDA purchased billboard space on northern routes out of Charlotte, and western exits from Raleigh, to lure visitors in. The signage was emblazoned with the phrase, “Imagine…a different destination. Historic West Jefferson.”
The authority also has a permanent sign on 421N exiting Wilkesboro. The sign was designed to syphon off traffic heading up the mountain, and divert travelers to West Jefferson instead of them just heading to Boone and Blowing Rock.
Dodson said the road construction in Boone and Blowing Rock could represent an important opportunity for West Jefferson.
“Roadwork on the new four lane entering Blowing Rock will create an increased volume of traffic coming up 421,” said Dodson. “It really could be a new opportunity for Ashe County businesses and natural resources to be discovered.”
“I see this place as a crown jewel in the state of North Carolina, an undiscovered treasure,” said Dodson. “We have 26 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of two Rural Historic Districts in the state in Todd, the New River, gorgeous mountains, and great summer weather.”
Dodson said simplicity is the key to building a brand for West Jefferson, and Ashe County.
“We’ve got to focus on the big draws,” said Dodson. “Historic West Jefferson, the New River, our mountains, the Parkway, leaf and tree season. I think we’ve got to continue to promote those, always.
Focusing on measurable marketing methods is key, according to Dodson.
“Our marketing has to be measurable,” said Dodson. “We need to be able to track what we’re doing, find out what works the best, and do more of that. We need to have a focused, directed, online strategy for our local businesses.”
The West Jefferson TDA has also partnered with several different groups and programs, notably HandMade in America, a small town revitalization program whose mission is to “grow handmade economies through craft, cultural heritage, and community assets.”
The Handmade organization spans 13 towns in Western North Carolina, including Bryson City, Mars Hill, Crossnore, and Todd. Handmade focuses on community-based tourism and the promotion of local economies of artisans and craftsmen. In doing so, Handmade captures and brands, a community unique selling proposition - the proud people and heritage that call the area home.
The group claims to have attracted more than $52 million in investments for member towns over the past 15 years.
“The way I look at it, what can the TDA do to take advantage of an opportunity to draw people here, to be a benefit for the people that live in West Jefferson?” said Dodson.
Dodson said the uncertainty surrounding the Hampton bankruptcy hurts the TDA.
“Historically, January to March has always been the preparation period, our planting season for the harvest,” said Dodson. “From a TDA perspective, its hard to plan our marketing for the upcoming year because of the bankruptcy.”
Dodson said the TDA has not received Hampton occupancy tax for the past five months.
“The rules of the bankruptcy also mean we can’t collect that,” said Dodson. “It’s not like we can just start making collection calls.”
According to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission website, “A bankrupt company, the ‘debtor,’ might use Chapter 11 of the Bankrupty Code to, ‘reorganize,’ it’s business and try to become profitable again. Management continues to run the day-to-day business operations but all significant decisions must be approved by a bankruptcy court.”
Hampton Inn of West Jefferson was completed in 2009, and was more than a year in development, after construction problems pushed the opening beyond the scheduled date. The hotel includes 58 rooms.
In November 2007, Ashe County secured a Commmunity Development Block Grant through the Department of Commerce and The Rural Center for approximately $163,000, in addition to $6,000 in matching money from the county, according to then Ashe County Director of Economic Development Pat Mitchell.