Officials in Cornelius and Huntersville say they’re close to agreeing on a finalized and updated interlocal agreement for Visit Lake Norman, but a meeting with N.C. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis has opened new concerns for some local leaders.
Tillis, a former Cornelius town board member, called the Monday, May 2, meeting at Cornelius Town Hall after several weeks of back- and-forth contention between elected officials and tourism leaders over the finer points of the agreement and a move by local hoteliers to push through N.C. House bill 508, which would lock down funding for the tourism agency.
On Monday, Tillis said he wanted to see how other towns and cities across the state funded a visitor’s bureaus. Several officials from other visitor’s bureaus said many newer tourism agencies get nearly all of the taxes generated at hotels and restaurants. Visit Lake Norman only gets 28 percent of the hotel-motel and prepared food taxes generated in the north Mecklenburg area.
Though Monday morning’s meeting with Tillis remained civil, Cornelius Commissioner Jim Bensman told his board: “Underneath there is a pot of boiling water. Things are being said that shouldn’t be said. Threats are being made.”
He said many supporters of Visit Lake Norman are pushing lawmakers for nearly all of the hotel-motel and prepared food tax money, despite a statement to the contrary from Vinay Patel, a hotelier who has become a leader of the push to pass House Bill 508, at the standing-room-only Monday meeting.
Bensman laid out a grim set of circumstances if tourism officials were to get all of the money, including
• Cornelius would lose money it planned to use to pay back a 10-year, $1.65 million loan to complete the Westmoreland Athletic Complex. The town already has signed a contract to finish the complex and would have to take the money out of its general fund or increase the tax rate by a penny to cover the loan and interest payments, Bensman said.
• The town wouldn’t be able to fulfill its commitment to the Lake Norman Economic Development Commission, because that money comes from tourism taxes.
• Leaders couldn’t order new wayfinding signs that are part of the town’s initiative to help visitors find restaurants, hotels and landmarks, such as the lake.
Bill Russell, president of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, sat in the audience as Bensman made his comments, but he did not speak to town board members until after the meeting.
Cornelius Mayor Pro Tem Lynette Rinker, who represents Cornelius on the Visit Lake Norman board and has been negotiating for increased accountability with Executive Director Sally Ashworth, said business members of the organization are now demanding the towns provide more accountability for how they spend the rest of the tourism taxes.
But Rinker and Bensman noted that state law sets guidelines for spending the money, and the town enumerates how that money is spent each year in its budget. Citing the town’s intention to use its tourism dollars on a tournament-quality ball field, Rinker added, “I don’t see how much more transparent this can be.”
Rinker also took umbrage at repeated remarks by local business people that the tourism money “isn’t taxpapers’ money, that it’s taxes the businesses self-imposed on themselves.”
She noted that local residents contribute a lot in prepared-food taxes – anytime they eat at an area restaurant. People have approached her in public to object to business people acting as if those revenues belong to them.
The whole Visit Lake Norman debate “is a minefield,” Rinker said. “It’s disappointing on a couple of levels.”
Bensman and Rinker also acknowledged that Visit Lake Norman supporters have a good argument about a section of the draft agreement that allows any of the towns to withdraw their support in any year.
“Anybody can drop out at any time, leaving (Visit Lake Norman) on the beach high and dry,” Bensman said. “That’s not fair.”
At Huntersville’s town board meeting, also on Monday, Commissioner Charlie Jeter had the same sentiment, asking to have the “opt-out clause” removed from the updated interlocal agreement.
And although Huntersville leaders took a less dire sentiment from the Tillis meeting, discussions still broke down as commissioner Jeter and Ron Julian split over the new accountability measures added to the proposed interlocal agreement.
At issue was an item that required one of the three north Mecklenburg County towns to maintain Visit Lake Norman’s accounting ledger. Jeter proposed cutting it from the agreement. He said it could add extra burden on an already overtaxed finance department and was redundant, as the interlocal document required Visit Lake Norman to open its books quarterly to the towns’ accounting agents, he said.
Cornelius officials also have offered to assume bookkeeping duties for Visit Lake Norman.
“If that passes, (Jeter) just gutted this thing,” Julian snapped. “… I want accountability. I want those books open.”
After nearly half an hour of similar exchanges between the men, Commissioner Sarah McAulay asked Town Manager Greg Ferguson to take their concerns back to the negotiating table for more discussion.
Officials at both towns say they’re close to an agreement despite the disputes, and it does appear that the lion’s share of problem points has been ironed out in the updated interlocal.
Tillis’ meeting seemed to be a call for civility in a charged debate. He reminded everyone of the importance of the issue and the realities of the situation, but stressed cooperation. “Remember,” he said, “this is just a disagreement between friends.”
What is proposed? Click this link to find out: Visit Lake Norman Interlocal