N.C. Sen. Chuck Edwards, a Henderson County Republican, plans to introduce a bill allowing the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority to establish a $5 million emergency grant fund for coronavirus emergency relief to tourism-related businesses in Buncombe County, according to a press release from Edwards’ office.

The bill, titled the “Buncombe County Tourism Jobs Recovery Act,” must be approved by the N.C. General Assembly, which returns to session next week, then signed by N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper.

Edwards has been working with Buncombe County commissioner and TDA board member Joe Belcher, and TDA chairman Gary Froeba, managing director of the Omni Grove Park Inn, on the bill, according to the press release.

The $5 million would be appropriated from unspent funds currently remaining in the portion of the Buncombe County hotel room tax collections called the Tourism Product Development Fund, according to the proposal. That fund is normally reserved for construction projects aimed at attracting overnight tourists to Asheville and Buncombe County.

The coronavirus crisis has hit the Buncombe County tourism industry particularly hard. Local hotels have seen occupancy levels shockingly low levels since Buncombe County officials, working with local public health officials, first ordered restaurants and bars closed in mid-March, then followed by ordering hotels to cancel all reservations for leisure travelers.

Since then, some local residents have been pushing TDA officials to use hotel tax money to help the thousands of out-of-work hotel and restaurant workers, as well as other small business owners affected by the coronavirus crisis.

Grants would be awarded to Buncombe County “tourism-related” small businesses, with those businesses eligible for up to $50,000.

Winning applicants could use the money for payroll, inventory, and other expenses associated with reopening businesses and hiring employees, according to the press release. Businesses that qualify are those that provide a direct experience for visitors, including restaurants, retail, studios and galleries, attractions, tours and activities, breweries, wineries, cideries, distilleries, entertainment and event venues, and numerous other categories.

Lodging properties would not be eligible.

To be eligible, a business must meet the same requirements as those to be listed on the BCTDA website at ExploreAsheville.com. Preference will be given to small businesses that are local and independently owned.

“This bill aims to help establish a local government stimulus initiative that makes extraordinary investments to get Buncombe County businesses back up and running and workers returning to their jobs as quickly as possible,” Edwards said in the release.

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