The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority is opening itself to locals’ concerns in a series of public sessions. The TDA held three public workshops last week at the U.S. Cellular Center.
The TDA says it’s using the feedback to help guide a new plan for spending a portion of the estimated 25 million dollars generated annually by hotel occupancy taxes.
On Friday, ten easels were posted up around a conference room. Some had maps for participants to indicate where they work or live, and others held large sheets of paper with questions written in colored marker, for participants to leave their responses.
At station number eight, Asheville resident Elizabeth Medlock was visibly frustrated. She was looking at a poster that asked “what makes Buncombe County authentic?”
“What does that even mean?,” Medlock said.
In addition to the content of the question, the text is hard for her to read. Medlock says she’s legally blind, due to retinal damage sustained in an accident.
Her 13-year-old daughter Sadie chimed in.
“If I wasn’t here, mom wouldn’t have been able to participate,” Medlock said.
Elizabeth Medlock has worked in nonprofit and community development strategic development since the late 80s. She says this method is dated, and even problematic, if the facilitators want to capture an accurate response
“I don’t see how they’re going to transcribe people’s handwriting out of context from three sessions, put it together and then you code, and then you run the analysis of the qualitative data with coding,” Medlock said. So you have too many steps where error can be entered in, which makes me think they’re not super serious about using this data on the other end.”
PGAV, the St. Louis-based consulting firm facilitating the workshop, says that’s why it’s supplementing the sessions with an online survey.
“The scientific part of the data analysis and input is going to be from that online survey. So we’re thrilled that people have come out today to share what their concerns are,” PGAV Senior project manager Jenny Ryan said. “Our goal is to find those projects that can really benefit the community as well as tourists.”
Ryan says the workshops are the first of a four phase process that includes meeting with city and county officials with recommendations on areas where more tourism dollars could be spent. She says that could include things like streetscapes and affordable housing.
“We’re looking at ways to improve some of the policies that affect people that live here every day through this tourism management and investment plan process,” Ryan said.
Back in the conference room, 13-year-old Sadie Medlock has a suggestion for the city’s leadership.
“They think they’re helping the community by bringing in money, but honestly, we care more about the environment we live in than the money that’s being generated,” Medlock said.
She says her generation would benefit from more investment in community theaters and the local arts scene:
“Like Asheville Community theater, it’s amazing, and I spend most of my time there,” Medlock said. “I feel like Asheville says ‘we’re such a place for the arts.’ I believe a lot of people do love the arts here, but I see a lot of those places shutting down because again, hotels are going up.”
But TDA President and CEO Stephanie Brown says the tourism and development authority has funded the arts and amenities like parks and greenways.
“This is a departure from the way we’ve made these choices in the past, it’s been an application-based process. We’ve provided funding to 39 projects, more than $44 million,” Brown said. “Wow we’re taking a different approach. We’re engaging in with the public and municipal partners to really think strategically over the next 10-15 years’ worth of funding.”
Brown says the feedback collected from the public in this process could determine how future occupancy tax money is used -- for the benefit of both locals and tourists.
The public survey can be accessed here.