The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority gathered Wednesday morning for its regular monthly meeting./ photo by Jason Sandford

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.

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4 Comments

  1. I support the TDA!

  2. luther blissett says:

    “It operates under specific rules and regulations”

    Yeah. It spends more on advertising than the entire budget of Black Mountain, its board has no democratic accountability, and its staff awards itself hefty bonuses.

    This isn’t even about whether tourism / hospitality is a “bad” industry per se. Hoteliers can spend their profits however they like. It’s whether that industry should have exclusive control over $20 million and counting in tax revenues, spend 75% of it on non-local advertising, and require local orgs to beg for a slice of what’s left.

    It would be the same situation if there were a 50 cent tax on every beer that went into a pot controlled by breweries to promote themselves.

    The TDA is indefensible under its existing statutory framework. If it wants to change that, it ought to lobby Raleigh to change the controlling law. If it doesn’t, then the only option for Buncombe residents is to elect county commissioners who’ll zero out the occupancy tax.

    • A few years ago there was some talk of raising the room tax and having that extra money go to help the city and county pay for infrastructure needs and services that tourists also use.

      The TDA objected, claiming that this would make rooms more expensive and discourage people from visiting.

      A couple of years later the TDA started panicking because so many new hotels were being built and they were concerned there would not be enough heads for all those new beds. Their solution? They proposed and got County Commission to raise the room tax. Suddenly they weren’t concerned about rooms becoming too expensive.

      The TDA’s continuing insistence on hiding behind the law, and its consistent refusal to engage with the community in a discussion on the concerns the community has with some of the problems created by tourism and over tourism has led many to conclude that the only answer is to abolish the TDA.

      There are unquestionably downsides to that solution, but at some point the TDA has got to do some self reflecting on the actions it has taken over the years that has led people to see its abolishing as the solution. The TDA has brought this upon itself.

      • luther blissett says:

        It is entirely the “paperclip maximizer” problem — if you create an AI with the task of producing as many paperclips as possible and the capacity to enhance its skills in order to do so, and leave it to its own devices, eventually it will destroy the universe.

        The TDA board is fixated on making paperclips. In fairness, that’s what it was set up to do. I don’t fault Mr Karvir or Mr Froeba for wanting more and more paperclips, but the TDA needs to be destroyed before it destroys everything in its path.

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