New committee to hold the purse strings for tourism grants

Sep. 6—A cumbersome process of awarding tourism grants — one that involved five subcommittees representing each zip code — will be streamlined under a new process approved by the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

The TDA sets aside a portion of the $3 million annual room tax on overnight accommodations for grants. The pot of grant money — which accounts for 25% of the total room tax collections — is divided into five more pots: Waynesville, Maggie Valley, Lake Junaluska, Canton and Clyde.

Historically, each locale had a subcommittee that reviewed grant applications, and then passed along their recommendations to the tourism board. Grants include support for festivals and events, special projects enhancing the visitor experience and niche marketing campaigns.

Now, the five subcommittees will be done away with a one committee — composed of a representative from each locale — will review the grant applications and make recommendations.

"We as a collective unit will have a plan that says 'This is what we all think is best for Haywood County,'" said Corrina Ruffieux, executive director of the HCTDA.

Each of the five locales would still have their own earmarked pot of money for tourism projects within their geographic territory, though grant recommendations would be made collectively by the single committee instead of five subcommittees.

Some objections arose at the TDA board meeting, however.

"Lake Junaluska, Canton, Clyde and Maggie are going to be a part of that decision making for what's best for Waynesville," said TDA member Scot Blair, owner of the Scotsman Public House in Waynesville. "There can be probably some contention there. There could be some visionary differences there as well."

The original purpose of the five subcommittees was to give each locale autonomy over how its pot of grant funding was allocated. The system was created during a tumultuous period for the TDA in the mid-2000s in hopes of placating an annual tug-of-war over tourism money between corners of the county.

A few TDA members questioned whether having one committee would take away from the intended autonomy.

"They're still going to have a voice but as a total, not five separate subcommittees," said TDA Chairman Mike Huber, a Lake Junaluska representative on the board.

Maggie Valley representative Tammy Wight wasn't so sure, however.

"I do feel like we're taking that voice away when you narrow it down to one member per zip code," said Wight.

However, having five subcommittees — each making recommendations for their own pot of funding to the full TDA board — came with its own problems.

"The subcommittee in Canton is dysfunctional and has been for some time. And I'm not pointing fingers at anyone in particular, but ours doesn't work," said Gail Mull, Canton alderwoman and the town's representative on the TDA board.

Huber said another issue with the five individual subcommittees was viewing grant applications in a vacuum without seeing out it fit into the entire county tourism landscape.

"We don't have context for what we're talking about or what we're working on," Huber said.

Avoiding tunnel vision when making grants is an impetus of the shift to a single committee with representatives from each area, Ruffieux said.

"Our legislative mandate is to drive tourism to all of Haywood County. We should look at grant applications through that lens. By having everyone at one table we are addressing that at a holistic level," Ruffieux said.

Ultimately, a solution was proposed to give the five locales more input on the grants if they so choose. Each locale can still congregate their own pre-committee to review the applications from within their own geographic territory, and then share those with their representative who serves on the main committee.

The TDA board voted unanimously to adopt the new process of a single committee making grant recommendations.

The new committee, which has been named the Product Development Committee, is part and parcel to a larger effort by the TDA to craft a Haywood County Tourism Master Plan.

"We're aiming to develop a comprehensive plan that harnesses our unique cultural, historical, and natural assets to boost tourism, stimulate economic growth, ensure sustainability, and enrich the experience for both visitors and locals," stated Ruffieux.

The master plan will lay out a 10-year strategic vision for the direction of tourism in the county. Grants awarded with TDA funds should align with the master plan and move the needle on accomplishing the vision, which can best be tackled by a cohesive committee, Ruffieux said.

"The question is 'what are the steps we need to take to get there' and one of the steps is how we have and haven't been funding grants," she said.