Emails: VLN subsidizing chamber office
by Staff Writer
Although much of the heated debate about who would control the area’s tourism dollars and funding for Visit Lake Norman seemed to begin recently, emails show leaders were battling for months on how Visit Lake Norman spends money.
Emails the Herald Weekly obtained through a public records request show a behind-the-scenes war of words and hard-nosed questions over how much taxpayer money went to promote the region and how much of Visit Lake Norman’s cash ended up subsidizing the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber owns the two-story, redbrick building at 19900 W. Catawba Ave. and rents space to Visit Lake Norman.
Documents obtained by the Herald show:
• For at least two years – 2009 and 2010 – taxpayer dollars – through Visit Lake Norman – paid 85 percent of the chamber’s annual mortgage payments. During those two years, the chamber charged Visit Lake Norman $69,963 in rent while paying about $85,000 for “facility expenses,” which included the mortgage, power and water bills, general maintenance and janitorial services.
• A preliminary Visit Lake Norman budget showed the agency planned to pay that same rent this year, until officials for the towns questioned if Visit Lake Norman was paying a fair market rate for space. But even when the chamber knocked $10,000 off Visit Lake Norman’s rent – to $59,900 – tourism taxes will still cover 70 percent of the chamber’s building expenses this year.
• In a March 8 email to Huntersville Commissioner Danae Caulfield, Cornelius Commissioner Lynette Rinker said she believed Visit Lake Norman was renting 2,000 square feet of space, which translates to $34.98 per square foot under the old rent and $29.95 per square foot for decreased rent, which only took effect on Jan. 1.
Rinker noted that competitive market rates on Catawba Avenue fall much lower, ranging from $21 to $17 per square foot. In a March 25 email, Mayor Jeff Tarte wrote, “I have heard there are 75 open retail spaces between exit 23 and exit 25 on our main corridors. I also was told you can get rates between $12 and $14 (per square foot). Would need to validate.”
Lake Norman Chamber President Bill Russell said the numbers included in the lease are misleading. Visit Lake Norman rents 1,861 square feet of exclusive space from the chamber, however the agency has access to 3,229 square feet, including shared space like bathrooms and other facilities in the building.
The per-square-footage cost falls closer to $15 per square foot, Russell said, and he called it a fair price for the location.
Through Visit Lake Norman attorney Cathy Bentz, Director Sally Ashworth refused to discuss the rental rates. Bentz said the visitors bureau is completing a market analysis, which will go to the Visit Lake Norman board in July.
Then Ashworth could discuss the rental rates in the market, Bentz said.
Davidson officials have had even less public discussion of Visit Lake Norman than Huntersville or Cornelius. But in an April 1 email to House Speaker Thom Tillis and Tarte, Davidson Mayor Pro Tem Laurie Venzon wrote:
“I believe there are two underlying issues for some of us regarding the current situation with VLN:
“1. VLN has $500k sitting in their bank account, and we can’t get them to use it in the towns to help improve things once people come to visit. For example, Davidson needs way-finding signs, maps and it would be nice to have a visitor’s information kiosk somewhere in Davidson. All those are valid uses of the tax that we desperately need and aren’t getting because our money is sitting in VLN’s bank account. So, contrary to the opinion, we are not trying to grab it for other uses than T&T (travel and tourism).
“2. VLN’s main focus is on getting events here and they take credit for a lot of $’s and ‘heads in beds’ that would exist even if they didn’t. So their transparency needs some refining and they need to be more accurate with what they are truly responsible for doing.”
Those types of hard-nosed questions have infuriated tourism-related businesses. In early February, the towns’ three mayors announced they had created a tourism task force to study the use of the area’s tourism tax dollars.
Within days, CommunityONE Bank Senior Vice President Woody Washam fired an angry email to the mayors, saying in part:
“I view this as a direct slam on your highly successful convention and visitors bureau (Visit Lake Norman), its highly committed board of directors and our highly successful and well-thought-of staff … I am simply appalled that such an action is even taking place without the involvement and direct input by the citizens and experts here in this community that have been a significant part of taking our travel and tourism success to such high levels for our 3 towns. Your motives and your mission is certainly in question.”
One Rinker email even speaks of a “threat” from Russell.
Rinker had asked for a copy of Visit Lake Norman’s lease with the chamber as well as a market analysis of office rental rates the chamber had promised to provide. On March 15, Ashworth emailed Rinker to say she still didn’t have the market study.
Rinker responded: “Never received information and never had another conversation about lease except for when Bill Russell called and threatened me about wanting it.”
This week, Rinker said Russell called and asked, “What are you up to?”
Rinker said she explained she was looking for information about Visit Lake Norman’s lease and a comparison of market rates. She said Russell responded, “What are you really up to?”
She said she tried to explain she was trying to represent the town on the Visit Lake Norman board, to which Russell responded, “You’re either being naïve or disingenuous.”
When a Herald reporter asked why Rinker felt threatened, Rinker responded, “It was the tone of voice” and the implied message: “Don’t go here.”
“It was an unpleasant conversation,” Rinker added.
“I don’t think it’s accurate to say that I am a pit bull,” Russell said. “I am a watchdog. I am the watchdog to make sure that these towns aren’t going to do anything that would have an adverse effect on the businesses in these towns.”