Tourism funding now set by state
by Staff Writer
by Josh Lanier
The deal is done.
Last week, the N.C. House and Senate unanimously passed legislation that guarantees tourism taxes for Visit Lake Norman, removing the three towns from any funding decisions..
Now, town officials are trying to salvage an interlocal agreement as well as the relationship between the towns, the agency and the tourism industry.
But that could be difficult as tempers are still running hot.
After the Cornelius town board met Monday, June 20, Commissioner Jim Bensman said in his newsletter that the towns didn’t believe Visit Lake Norman was “doing a good enough job.”
“The debate was never really about the money,” Bensman wrote to constituents. “It was about dissatisfaction with the service being provided and could the funds be better spent.
“… While the chamber (of Commerce) and VLN have attacked the town in the press and in Raleigh, the fact remains that the towns are well served by volunteers (town board members) who are successful business people and entrepreneurs. We know how to run businesses and governments.”
Former Lake Norman chamber Chairman John Hettwer quickly disputed Bensman’s missive and added his own warning.
“I disagree with your assertions of VLN on so many levels. The business community has always been a friend to Jim Bensman and I would be careful not to alienate them (especially before an election),” Hettwer wrote to Bensman in an email the Herald acquired through a public-records request. “You have enough people gunning for you. Why take on the business community? I do not believe that we have good business people in all 3 towns. (Mayor) John Woods and Leamon (Brice, town manager) will bankrupt Davidson in the end. Huntersville has been abusing VLN funds for years. Unfortunately, you are wasting your political capital, which you may need in future, defending them. Be careful! Sent from your friend!”
Hettwer appeared to allude to Davidson’s purchase, with Mooresville, of the MI-Connection broadband company and Huntersville’s use of hotel-motel and prepared-food taxes to pay the debt service for the Huntersville Family Fitness and Aquatic center and Discovery Place Kids.
The argument boils down to one simple point: Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson want more oversight of the tourism agency and more representation on its 16-member board. Currently, the towns appoint only three members of that board, one for each municipality.
The bill that passed both houses of the N.C. Legislature Thursday, June 16, only addresses how much the towns are required to give Visit Lake Norman – equivalent to 28 percent of occupancy taxes generated by hotels and motels and 25 percent of prepared-food taxes in the three towns. But the law says nothing about how the agency should be governed.
Rep. Beverly Earle, the Charlotte Democrat who sponsored the House bill, said she did not address governance of Visit Lake Norman because she hadn’t been told the town boards wanted more oversight when the bill was originally written.
“It was never really discussed,” she said. “If the towns had made that suggestion to me, we would have likely addressed it. I had heard that’s what the towns wanted, but no one came to me and said ‘We want this. Put this in the bill.’”
Earle called the town’s request for more control “reasonable” and said Visit Lake Norman Executive Director Sally Ashworth was ready to make some concessions with towns’ leadership.
“People can’t have a hostile attitude when coming to the table though,” Earle added.
“… In the end they’re working for the same thing, and that is what is best for the towns. Once everyone cools off, I think you’ll see that partnership going forward. At least I hope that’s how it goes.”
Huntersville and Cornelius reaffirmed their commitments Monday, June 20, to seek a new interlocal agreement, which includes more oversight of the tourism agency.
“All sides need to realize or remember that we are on the same team. We all want to see the tourism dollars spent wisely with the biggest bang for all three towns,” Huntersville Commissioner Danae Caulfield said in an email. “As elected officials, we have to realize that the tourism industry looks at this issue from a different mindset. And the tourism/visitors side needs to understand that, as elected officials, we have a different perspective as guardians of taxpayer dollars, no matter where they come from or where they are going.”
The three town managers will sit down again with Visit Lake Norman leaders on Tuesday, June 28, to try to get a finalized agreement. The current agreement expires June 30.
Some commissioners, though, fear the new state statute will undercut any leverage they had in the discussion.
“They have no reason to listen to us now,” Huntersville Commissioner Charlie Jeter said. “There’s really no reason for this interlocal agreement. They’ve proven they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want.”