Serious budget talks likely to begin soon surrounding tourism agency

by Josh Lanier and Frank DeLoache

Huntersville Commissioner Ron Julian wants to revise the funding mechanisms of Visit Lake Norman, the regional tourism body funded by Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson.

He’s asking for more oversight of how the tourism agency spends its tax-funded money, a break from its “too close” relationship with the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce and a change in how the towns pony up to the agency each year.

But proponents of Visit Lake Norman, including local officials who sit on the agency’s board, called Julian’s proposal ill-timed, poorly conceived and flat out uneducated.

Julian said he came to this point after studying Visit Lake Norman for two years. His conclusion: “When you get right down to it, I have no proof Visit Lake Norman has helped generate any extra (hotel stays). They’ve mostly stamped their name to events that were already coming this way.”

Julian, who served as Huntersville’s representative for Visit Lake Norman in 2010, said he feels the agency is redundant and contends Huntersville Family Fitness and Aquatic, Discovery Place Kids and the town’s Parks and Recreation Department draw in the lion’s share of visitors to the town through events those agencies arrange themselves.

Julian also thinks Visit Lake Norman is paying far too much – nearly $60,000 a year – in rent for a building it shares with the Chamber of Commerce on West Catawba Avenue in Cornelius.

“There are much better options for a lot cheaper out there,” he said. “Most of people don’t even realize they’re over there anyway.”

Visit Lake Norman is funded through a hotel-motel and prepared-food tax collected at local hotels and restaurants. As an example, when someone spends the night at a Huntersville hotel or eats at a Cornelius restaurant, a portion of the taxes generated is sent back to the respective town for use in promoting tourism.

Each of north Mecklenburg’s three towns chips in 28 percent of those taxes generated in that town to Visit Lake Norman, to the tune of about $500,000 annually.

Julian would like to see the towns chip in a set amount each year, not a percentage. He also wants to do away with the current Visit Lake Norman board made up of staff, hoteliers and town officials. Only town representatives should have votes over the taxpayer-funded agency, he said, not Visit Lake Norman staff and hoteliers.

Huntersville Commissioner Ken Lucas found Julian’s proposal “completely uneducated.”

“At the end of the day, what matters here is what you’re putting your money to and what is the return,” he said. “When it comes right down to it, Visit Lake Norman has proven to be a phenomenal return on investment if you look at how much we get back on every dollar spent.”

As proof of Visit Lake Norman’s impact on Lake Norman tourism, Lucas pointed to professional bass fishing and soccer tournaments and a number of other events and the people those events bring in.

If the towns started pledging a certain amount of money – versus a percentage of the taxes collected – to Visit Lake Norman, they would need some clairvoyance because no one knows how much hotel-motel and prepared-food tax will come in each year, Lucas said. If the tax revenue dropped and the towns had pledged more, they’d have to make up the difference from general tax funds.

“If you start thinking you know how much we’re going to get each year,” Lucas said, “you should probably start picking lottery numbers. ...

“Mr. Julian never brought any of these issues up when he was Visit Lake Norman’s rep, when he had full chance to bring up these issues,” Lucas said. “He’s showing his bias here, and if he understood the budgets, he wouldn’t be making these claims. I’d love to have a serious, intellectual and educated discussion about tourism, but unfortunately, Mr. Julian is stuck on still trying to figure out the basics.”

Cornelius Mayor Pro Tem Lynette Rinker, who represents her town on the Visit Lake Norman board, said she and other Cornelius officials have brought their concerns to the Visit Lake Norman Executive Director Sally Ashworth and her staff, and the staff has responded quickly.

The Cornelius board recently reaffirmed its commitment of 28 percent of its hotel-motel and prepared-food taxes to the regional tourism agency.

Cornelius officials shared questions about Visit Lake Norman’s rent overhead, and the agency is conducting a study of rental rates in the market to see if continuing to share space with the chamber makes sense.

Ashworth and her staff also welcomed suggestions to decentralize the visitors’ center so that the tourism agency has a presence in all three towns. The staff is still studying whether to downsize the main center or keep the current space in Cornelius and open a kiosk or small satellite in Huntersville – possibly in Birkdale Village or Discovery Place Kids – and Davidson – possibly on Main Street where visitors to Davidson College could find it, Rinker said.

In the end, Julian believes Lake Norman will never be what Visit Lake Norman markets the area to be: a tourism destination.

“We are not a resort area,” Julian said this week. “People from Minnesota are not thinking, ‘Let’s go on vacation. Let’s head to Huntersville.’ We need to understand that right now.”