A push toward generating more revenue to market Sampson County was made Tuesday by the Sampson County Convention and Visitors Bureau, whose board unanimously recommended doubling the room occupancy tax for local lodging facilities.
That recommendation will now go before the Sampson County Board of Commissioners, which has to adopt a resolution requesting the N.C. Legislature implement the tax increase. The room occupancy tax is not a levy on county residents, but a 3 percent tax paid by visitors of local inns and motels, generating money that is then spent by CVB to market, advertise and promote the county.
A bill modifying that tax must be introduced in May to become effective this year.
The matter would not require a public hearing at the local level, as there is already an existing tax, CVB chairman Ray Jordan said.
CVB board member Deborah Hall made a motion in favor of increasing what is called the ROT from 3 to 6 percent, seconded by member David King. There was short discussion, during which some CVB members inquired as to whether the recommendation would have to be accompanied by a budget detailing the estimated revenues and the proposed expenditures.
With a strategic plan in the works and outside consultants for that process currently being considered, a proposed budget would likely be premature and incomplete, Jordan and others said. Specifying projects prior to identifying short- and long-term plans would be “pigeonholing” the tourism board, he asserted.
“The strategic planning process is going to help us get to that end,” said Jordan. “Two years ago we realized that in order to make anything happen, we needed to (increase the ROT) and it got stalled. Now we’re back to that same spot. The amount of funds that we can use to market this county, we can hardly do anything promotion-wise. The main thing is to have funding there so we can market (Sampson).
“If we don’t act now and implement this, we’re going to sit here for another year and we’ll have a limited pool of funds to try to develop inroads (to market),” he continued.
That annual marketing pot has averaged $17,500 in recent years. In presentations made last week to the Board of Commissioners and again Tuesday to the CVB board, new CVB director Sheila Barefoot said a key goal in growing Sampson’s tourism industry would be to double the room occupancy tax.
The ROT generated $57,200 in 2012-13, a number that climbed to $62,567 in 2013-14, an increase of 9.4 percent. It made an even bigger jump in 2014-15 to $73,406, an increase of 17.4 percent over the previous year.
“We’re on track to be at an even higher percentage this year,” Barefoot has noted.
Statistics provided Tuesday showed that from July 1, 2015 to Dec. 31, 2015, room occupancy tax revenue in Sampson totaled $47,871.74, a 39 percent increase over the amount through six months last year. If the number stayed consistent the remaining six months, that would mean a more than 30 percent boost overall from last year.
A hike in the room occupancy tax would only inflate that number. While Sampson’s room occupancy tax rate stands at 3 percent, the ROT in Wayne and Johnston stands at 5 percent, and Cumberland, Duplin, Harnett and Pender are at 6 percent.
“When you look at the adjoining counties and see they are at 6 (percent) and then look at what we’re accomplishing at 3 (percent), think of how much more we can accomplish at 6,” said CVB board member Roland Hall. “It’s a no-brainer.”
Barefoot reiterated Tuesday that she had visited each of the local lodging providers, all of whom have given their stamp of approval for an increase in the tax rate. Two of those lodging providers, Julie Stadig of Ashford Inn and Susan Richert of Richert Inn were part of Tuesday’s vote in favor of the increased levy.
“Visitor spending means economic growth,” Barefoot said, noting the eased tax burden, job creation and boosted quality of life that comes with it. “This means visitors and tourism create a positive economic impact for Sampson County. The economic impact of tourism is vital to our local community.”
In 2014, visitors spent nearly $47.2 million in Sampson, up from $46.1 million in 2013 and $45.1 million in 2012. Sales tax revenue generated for the state by visitors to Sampson totaled $2.57 million in 2014. Visitor spending generated local tax revenues of $1.48 million, Barefoot said.
“At the end of the day, our whole mission is to increase that number and increase visitors,” Jordan attested. “We obviously want to put people in motels, but it’s bigger than that. What this occupancy tax increase will do is give this organization the finances it needs in order to effectively market and develop travel and tourism as we go forward.”
The board has the authority to spend up to two-thirds of funds on marketing and one-third of the funds on capital projects, those that have a public benefit. Jordan said where those funds would actually go would be the subject of brainstorming sessions and strategic planning with stakeholders and citizens. Board members also suggested regular CVB meetings be held across the county and be open to the public, which they already are.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t have some pretty good wish-lists or ideas, but in term of specifying each one I think it might be a little premature,” CVB board member Bill Scott remarked. “The idea is we’ll have some capital projects and give back some of this money to make us all better. That would satisfy me. The timing is that there is a bit of a sense of urgency.”
A bill to increase the tax has to be submitted to the Bill Drafting Division of the Legislative Services Offices by May 3. That bill must be introduced in the N.C. House or filed for introduction in the Senate by May 19.
“I really want it to go through with no doubt,” said CVB member Tammy Peterson, who was one who inquired as to whether more concrete plans for those increased funds would be needed to be presented initially. Others expressed the need for public involvement during upcoming strategic planning.
“This board does not have all the answers,” said Hall. “The expertise is not here, but there are people out there and they are invited to come.”
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