By Kristin Fox
With $437 million dollars in sales, Jackson County ranked #2 in visitor spending in the western North Carolina region according to data collected in 2021 by the Tourism Economics & Visit NC. This translates to millions of dollars spent by tourists in local restaurants, gas stations, and small businesses in Cashiers, Cherokee, Dillsboro, and Sylva. Jackson County hosted 1,093,283 visitors per year.
People visiting Jackson County put 2,343 people to work generating $110.4 million in Jackson County paychecks. Visitors deposited $1,198,383 per day into local cash registers, an increase of over $144.7 million increase in visitor spending from the prior year.
Local county tax revenues of $15.6 million were generated by visitors and reinvested back into the county. This accounts for 18.9 percent of Jackson County’s $82 million budget at a tax savings of $723.41 annually per resident.
Jackson County is behind Buncombe County ranked #1 in visitor spending in western North Carolina with $2.6 billion.
This positive economic news was part of the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority (TDA) commissioner briefing presented by Nick Breedlove, Executive Director Jackson County TDA, at this week’s regular meeting of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.
The mission of the Jackson County TDA is to promote the growth of year-round tourism opportunities that benefit the county’s economy. The efforts of the TDA put people to work, grow jobs, build community, and make our towns a vibrant place to live, play and work.
Jackson County TDA’s vision is to be the premier mountain destination providing an active lifestyle, spectacular natural assets and a friendly community for citizens and visitors alike.
A TDA is the vehicle created by the state of North Carolina to oversee the collection and allocation of occupancy taxes. In most places, it is a “quasi-governmental body,” with a board composed mostly of stakeholders from the local visitor economy and ex-officio representatives. TDAs can only be created by an act of the legislature granting approval to a local governing body, such as county commissioners, to appoint members and to authorize an occupancy tax.
Jackson County levies a four percent tax on “the gross receipts derived from the rental of any room, lodging, or accommodation furnished by a hotel, motel, inn, tourist camp, or similar place within the county that is subject to sales tax imposed by the state.” This tax is in addition to any state or local sales tax. This tax does not apply to accommodations furnished by nonprofit charitable, educational, or religious organizations when furnished in furtherance of their nonprofit purpose.
Any accommodation that collects sales tax must also collect occupancy tax including short-term rentals (Airbnb, VRBO and all others). Historically, short term rentals represented on average about 25 percent of Jackson County’s occupancy tax revenue. As of June 2022, Jackson County has 1,518 short-term rental listings including 1,280 unique rental units.
By authority granted to it by the state legislature (House Bill 96) in 2011, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners sets the occupancy tax rate. Local commissioners can authorize a tax of up to six percent without having to change the state legislation. Occupancy tax rates in North Carolina destinations range from one to six percent. The only exception is Mecklenburg County, which levies eight percent. In 2012, Jackson County set the tax rate at four percent.
In Jackson County, as in most NC destinations, occupancy taxes can be allocated in two different ways as defined by the legislation. Two-thirds can be used for the promotion of tourism: “To advertise or market an area or activity, publish and distribute pamphlets and other materials, conduct market research, or engage in similar promotional activities that attract tourists or business travelers to the area. The term includes administrative expenses incurred in engaging in the listed activities.” The remaining one-third can be used for “tourism-related expenditures,” which include tourism-related capital expenditures.
Public relations is an important function of the Jackson County TDA. As a result of the work of the Jackson County TDA, total impressions for the county were 1,010,832,715.
Jackson County has been featured in many top-tier media outlets including Travel + Leisure, TravelPulse, The Zoe Report, Matador Network, Southern Living, The Travel, BestLife, Garden &n Gun and Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Social media is an important way visitors find out about Jackson County. According to SproutSocial, Jackson County’s social media metrics for 2022 were 50.8 million total impressions, with 995 posts published, 37.4 thousand new followers, and a total engagement of 2.7 million. Website metrics of 2022 include 718,358 sessions, a 41 percent change up from 508,150 in the prior year.
The TDA can invest one-third of its allocations in tourism-related expenditures. Tourism-related expenditures are designed to increase the use of lodging facilities, meeting facilities, or convention facilities in the county or to attract tourists or business travelers to the county. The term includes tourism-related capital expenditures.
Eligible bricks and mortar capital projects include convention and conference centers, arenas and stadiums, sports facilities, performing arts venues, museums and other attractions, parks, greenways, trails, and other placemaking initiatives, like streetscapes and public art, visitor centers and wayfinding.
The Jackson County TDA has spent the last several years researching what would be the best projects for the county that would benefit the community serving both residents and visitors.
The JCTDA has developed an application for capital projects. Funding is available for projects that are publicly owned/operated or owned/operated by nonprofits. Capital projects require a one-to-one match.
Eligible projects include: 1) New construction, expansion, renovation, or a replacement project for an existing facility or facilities. The project must have a total cost of at least $25,000 over the life of the project and a useful life of at least 10 years; 2) A purchase of major equipment (assets) costing $25,000 or more with a useful life of at least 10 years; and 3) A major maintenance or rehabilitation project for existing facilities with a cost of $25,000 or more and a useful life of at least 10 years.
Applications are due by June 1, 2023, and will be reviewed by the Jackson County TDA. By the summer, the commissioners will review and approve applications.
This fiscal year, the local TDA allocated $750,000 for capital projects, a substantial sum that can make a difference in Jackson County. Future allocations will depend on forecasted occupancy tax receipts.
According to Breedlove, the TDA has not received any applications yet, but there is interest in the capital project funding. The Town of Sylva has expressed interest in a project to clean up the impaired waterway at Bridge Park and Scotts Creek. Dillsboro has also contacted the TDA for information about a project to connect Monteith Park with a community-wide project.