Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority officials, responding to a steady stream of criticism about how the TDA spends millions in hotel occupancy tax revenue, called the criticism divisive and off-base during a Wednesday meeting.
Himanshu Karvir, a TDA member and local hotel owner, launched a 25-minute, point-by-point rebuttal of a newspaper opinion piece at the end of the board’s regular monthly meeting.
Karvir, who has been involved with the TDA for the past six years, said a “constant barrage of negative comments” have felt like a “long, slow beating.”
“I’ve had enough,” he said, after taking time to read Worthen’s piece and then criticizing its main points as untrue and divisive.
His diatribe came in response to an op-ed written by community activist and local musician Ami Worthen, which was published this week by the Asheville Citizen-Times. The piece was titled “The TDA spends millions on unsustainable tourism, and we can stop it.”
In it, Worthen argues that the growing local tourism trade has contributed to environmental degradation, sped gentrification and exacerbated racial inequities. She calls upon Buncombe County commissioners to repeal the local hotel room tax and end the “ability of the TDA to shape our community to their benefit.”
Another independent news outlet, The Asheville Blade, first published an extended version of the opinion piece, titled “Abolish the TDA,” on Oct. 5.
The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority had about an $18 million budget in its last fiscal year, with the majority of that money, as required by the state law establishing the now 6 percent room tax, going to advertise and market Asheville and Buncombe County has a tourist destination.
The efforts have been successful in recent years, with a noticeable uptick in visitation that has, in turn, spurred a hotel building boom. And that activity has triggered criticism from some community members concerned about tourism’s impact on local infrastructure and the cost of living in Asheville. In September, Asheville City Council approved a one-year moratorium on new hotel construction in an effort to get a better handle on development rules around their construction.
In his comments, Karvir agreed that the local tourism industry was a significant part of the local economy, helping support more than just hotel jobs, but not an all-powerful one as suggested by Worthen. It operates under specific rules and regulations, not as an unfettered agency as described by Worthen’s op-ed, he said. The TDA has also spent millions of hotel tax dollars in the community over the past four decades, Karvir said, supporting everything from soccer fields and greenways to museums. That has all added to the community’s vibrancy, he stressed, rather than degrading it.
Commentaries and media coverage that portray hotel owners as “evil hoteliers” is off-base, he added, noting that he and his family, who emigrated to the U.S. from India, have deep roots in the community.
“I obviously am taking great offense to all of this,” he said.
He acknowledged that there were, indeed, some negative impacts from growing tourism, and noted that the TDA this year has been working to address those through a process that will likely result in changes to the way the board spends some of hit occupancy tax money. The ongoing process is known as the Tourism Management and Investment Plan and is scheduled to be finished by next spring.
In wrapping up his comments, Karvir called on the community to come together and work together to find solutions.
Karvir’s comments were met with a round of applause from fellow board members, some of whom expressed support. TDA Chairman Gary Froeba, managing director at the Omni Grove Park Inn, said he’s issued his own opinion piece to the newspaper in response to Worthen. Stephanie Brown, the president and CEO of the TDA’s Explore Asheville arm, penned her own response and sent it to the organization’s local partner businesses.
“It just shows we have to stand up for our industry,” Froeba said. “We’re not a bad industry.
Froeba praised the Explore Asheville staff that does the TDA’s day-to-day work of marketing and advertising Asheville and Buncombe County has a tourist destination.
“We can’t let them get pummeled like they’ve been getting pummeled,” he said. “It’s not fair to them. It’s not fair to us.”
Froeba went on to relate an anecdote: immediately after presenting Asheville Art Museum officials with a $1.5 million check from the TDA last week in support of its newly opened renovation and expansion project, Froeba said a museum volunteer took to the podium and said something like, isn’t it great to be standing on a corner without a hotel on it?
“It was very disappointing,” Froeba said, adding that art museum Executive Director Pam Myers apologized for the unscripted comment.
“That’s the sentiment that we’re facing.”
*This story was updated on Nov. 21 to correct the spelling of the name of Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority member Himanshu Karvir.