Possible approval of an occupancy tax in areas of Wilkes County outside the towns was discussed during a Wilkes Economic Development Corp. (EDC) board meeting Friday morning.
Wilkes EDC board member Dale Isom said he heard “rumblings” the prior week indicating the Wilkes County commissioners might again look at approving an occupancy tax for motels and other places of lodging outside the municipalities.
Isom brought up the topic when Wilkes EDC President LeeAnn Nixon, who is on the Wilkesboro Tourism Development Authority (TDA) board, invited input from the EDC board on the TDA board’s search for a new president in the wake of Jodi Tonsic’s resignation from the job.
Isom said that as the TDA board moves ahead with hiring a new president, it should consider how county commissioner approval of an occupancy tax could change the board’s structure. “That’s a big thing to undertake,” he said.
Tonsic resigned in early May to become associate director of marketing at the Reynolda museum and gardens in Winston-Salem, effective June 3.
Town Manager Ken Noland said the Wilkes Chamber of Commerce is handling TDA correspondence and other day-to-day matters until a new president is named. Chamber President Linda Cheek chairs the TDA board.
The TDA president’s job description is being reviewed for potential changes before applications for Tonsic’s replacement are sought, Noland said.
The Wilkesboro TDA, created by the legislature in 2001, has a seven-member board appointed by the town council. Noland said it functions as a component unit of the town government, similar to the Wilkesboro ABC Board.
The TDA board meets quarterly to oversee how revenue (over $150,000 a year) from the town’s 3% occupancy tax is spent.
In 2010, at the request of the Wilkes County commissioners, legislation was approved allowing the county to collect an occupancy tax of up to 6% in unincorporated areas of Wilkes. The county board voted 3-2 to table this until later in 2010.
The issue has arisen since then, including with discussion of transitioning from a Wilkesboro to a Wilkes County TDA board if the county commissioners established an occupancy taxes outside the towns. The county commissioners would then appoint some TDA board members.
Keith Elmore, chairman of the county commissioners and EDC board member, said owners of airbnbs and rental cabins outside towns in Wilkes should be involved in occupancy tax discussions to help “warm them up” to the idea of collecting this tax.
“If we can get them in and convince them that there is a benefit in collecting it from their customers... I think we need to start there.”
Elmore added, “It’s hard for us because we tried this one time and got negative feedback from those folks. If we can convince them that it’s to their benefit, I’m sure the county (commissioners) would be willing to do this.” His was among votes for tabling action on an occupancy tax in 2010.
North Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson agreed about the importance of communication to build occupancy tax support. He said some Wilkes residents don’t understand that an occupancy tax is only levied when people stay in places of lodging.
Dr. Jeff Cox, Wilkes Community College president, said most people who travel may have concerns with fees related to lodging, but occupancy taxes aren’t an issue.
Nixon suggested having a forum to share information about occupancy taxes with owners of airbnbs, rental cabins and other places of lodging in Wilkes, as well as with the general public. (Airbnb is an online marketplace for short-term rental of homes, called airbnbs.) Nixon said information on potential uses of occupancy tax revenue could be shared.
She said some local businesses have wanted to participate in Wilkesboro TDA marketing programs but couldn’t due to being outside the town.
Nixon said the Wilkesboro TDA website (www.wilkescountytourism.com) has listed rental cabins and other locations outside Wilkesboro, but there are still limitations on benefits for businesses outside the town.
Noland said the Wilkesboro Town Council involved itself more actively in Wilkesboro TDA matters several months ago, especially concerning who and what the TDA should market.
In April 2018, the town council approved a resolution telling the TDA board to spend occupancy tax revenue exclusively on promoting tourism in Wilkesboro. At a meeting of the town council and TDA board in August 2018, council members voiced their desire for spending more occupancy tax revenue on downtown capital improvements centering around the Carolina West Wireless Community Commons.
Noland said Friday that the Wilkesboro TDA has a certain pot of money to spend, “but there is a lot of money out there available to become a part of that pot that isn’t in it. So, we have to make decisions about who we spend on.”
He added, “We recognize that the assets are the entire county,” but also that only places of lodging in Wilkesboro fund the TDA. He said the new TDA director will hopefully bring a new direction and help town and county officials work together to develop a countywide board that “brings all the money in one pot and benefits us all.”
North Wilkesboro Commissioner Joe Johnston said that as searches are made for a new TDA director and new North Wilkesboro town manager, he wants it heard that he supports and expects North Wilkesboro’s increased involvement in tourism promotions. “To get people here you’ve got to promote the entire region.”
Johnston said in an interview later that he wasn’t saying the North Wilkesboro commissioners should pass an occupancy tax for the town.
Nixon said she was surprised when she saw online listings for over 90 airbnbs in Wilkes just before MerleFest this year.
Having this many airbnbs in Wilkes, mostly outside the towns, “shows that there is potential for more marketing and advertising we could do if we had a countywide occupancy tax,” she added. Airbnbs are among places of lodging subject to an occupancy tax if such a tax is in place.
Nixon said she expects to pay an occupancy tax when she stays in airbnbs elsewhere “and it would be okay with me if I had to pay it in Wilkes.”
The only places of lodging exempt from occupancy taxes where the tax is in place include campgrounds on government land and temporary campgrounds like those open for MerleFest.
EDC board member Bill Warden said the new TDA president here “would have a lot more credibility” if he or she lived in Wilkes. “I just think it shows a commitment to the position and that is important, the same as your position,” said Warden to Nixon.
Tonsic lived in Winston-Salem while commuting here to work as TDA president for 16 years. Nixon lives in Wilkes.
Nixon said Warden’s point has been discussed “as an important factor that might need to be kept in mind, although I don’t think the committee has made a decision on that one way or another.”
Warden said the TDA president should attend weekend events designed to draw visitors to Wilkes and not living here makes that hard to do. “If you’re not at those events, how are you selling them?”
Nixon said she and Noland, an ex-officio TDA board member, would share the EDC board’s comments with the TDA board.