Making Asheville’s tourism millions work for the people who are doing the work
Ben Williamson, like a lot of people in Asheville, was not happy with how tourists and the tourism industry had taken over the city, thanks in large part to a tax on hotel occupancy which results in tens of millions of dollars being spent annually on advertising to get people to come to the beautiful and increasingly crowded and unaffordable city in the Blue Ridge mountains of western North Carolina.
“There’s been a number of us for years that have been organizing or speaking out against sort of the direction of downtown Asheville specifically, and tourism’s role. We are not anti tourism, just fearful of the erosion of so much of what we value and appreciate about Asheville,” said Williamson, whose day job is as a manager at Down Home NC, an advocacy non profit.
Meanwhile, the problems caused by tourism, like gentrification and displacement continued to get worse in Buncombe County. The local paper wrote a story last fall about a teacher of the year at a local high school who was having to move away because the cost of housing had gotten too high to let her family stay. Post pandemic, thriving restaurants are often closed three to four days a week because employees can’t afford to drive the 30 to 40 miles from where they can afford to live to work for restaurant wages.
Williamson and others had held meetings forums, met with elected officials, but nothing changed, year after year. Then something did.
The state legislature last April, 2022, passed a local bill that changed the formula for how the millions from the 6% tax on occupied hotel rooms is distributed. Instead of 75% of the money (projected to be $37.6 million next year) going to promote tourism, now 16.5% of the money (about $7 million this year) will go to a new entity called the Legacy Investment Tourism Fund which can go for community benefits.
Williamson set up http://Buncomedecides.org a strictly volunteer coalition to advocate that the new millions for affordable housing for service workers; the people who work to bring in those tourist dollars in hotels, restaurants and attractions.
A master at coalition building, Williamson quickly had the local Asheville Food and Beverage Workers United on board. That group https://www.facebook.com/avlfbu/ had first come together as an emergency mutual aid group during the pandemic as their jobs evaporated. They had recently. organized and gotten the city council not exempt them from parking lot fees while they served in the city’s restaurants and hotels. Buncombe Decides set a goal of 2,000 signatures to show community support.
Williamson created a clear and effective slide deck https://www.canva.com/design/DAFeradv008/_i3C9EQ6GzcXUD7OF2SkAA/view?utm_content=DAFeradv008&utm_campaign=designshare&utm_medium=link&utm_source=homepage_design_menu#2 he carried to groups all over the county as he spoke. The local Democratic Socialists chapter, https://avldsa.org/ a large group known for effective canvassing mobilized to collect signatures. You can sign their petition here https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/service-worker-affordable-housing-support-and-committee-representation-2/
Buncombe Decides will know within the next month if they have succeeded. A meeting of the Tourism Development Authority this coming Wednesday, at 9 am. at the tourism offices at 27 College Place in Asheville is the key. They are hoping for a big crowd to show support and speak for their two issues: that the Lift Fund be allocated for affordable housing for service workers, and second, to include service worker representation on the Lift committee. Buncombe Decides has also held trainings in how to speak up and be heard at a public hearing.
Currently the 11 person membership of the governing Tourism Development Authority is composed of seven people from the hotel industry and two from breweries and restaurants. They control the public money with no outside oversight and direct it to directly improve their bottom line. There is also a county commissioner and a member of Asheville city council on the board. https://www.ashevillenc.gov/department/city-clerk/boards-and-commissions/tourism-development-authority/.
The Lift Committee, which will decide where the $7 million should go, forms next month in June. “Are they going to let representatives of janitors, receptionists, hvac workers, bus boys, and waiters whose work brings in the tourism dollars have a voice in how it’s spent?” Williams asks. He has reasons for optimism. Three of the seven county commissioners are on board, including the chairman. A fourth is an affordable housing advocate. If the commissioners don’t like how the TDA set up the Lift Fund, they could cut or even eliminate the occupancy tax. If a service worker is added to the Lift Committee, then Williamson thinks they will have won and affordable housing for service workers will be the focus of the Lift Fund.
There is some support for making housing for their employees affordable on the TDA board as well as some opposition. “Some board members see (the Lift Fund) as cutting into their profits, rather than seeing that it will enable their workforce able to afford to keep coming to work,” Williams said. Despite that, he thinks that they will succeed in creating affordable housing for service workers. Buncombe County says that the affordable housing that’s needed overall has a $54 million price tag.
Williamson says Buncombe Decides will consider its job done if the Lift Fund is established. The campaign was strictly volunteer with no money raised. Beyond this initial campaign on one clear and potentially winnable issue, however, it has asked some. deeper questions.
The occupancy tax has nearly doubled in just four years, from $19.6 million in 2020 to nearly $38 million next year. “Have our tourism needs doubled in the last four years?” Buncombe Decides’ presentation asks. Then it goes on to ask what the county’s priorities are, from housing to childcare the environment to racial equity and education.
Buncombe Decides may go away as a campaign if it wins next week. But it may open the door to a shift in the fundamental way that power and money flows around Asheville’s biggest industry.