The doubling of a room occupancy tax that would aid tourism efforts locally, a goal of the Sampson County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) for years, is beginning to come into focus with the passing of legislation authorizing the move.
Sheila Barefoot, director of the Sampson County CVB, made the announcement during the CVB board’s meeting Tuesday that the tax is inching closer to a hike from 3 percent to 6.
An increase in the room occupancy tax must be authorized by the North Carolina General Assembly, which it was for Sampson County on Aug. 3. If approved by the Sampson County Board of Commissioners, the proposed occupancy tax would fall in line with neighboring counties, with Wayne and Johnston at 5 percent and Cumberland, Duplin, Harnett and Pender at 6 percent.
The legislation does not require the governor’s signature nor does the matter require a public hearing at the county level.
“I’m so excited,” CVB director Sheila Barefoot remarked. “When it goes to our Board of Commissioners in September, they will then authorize the approval to levy the tax. Let’s just hope all that goes well, and they do authorize that to go up 3 percent.”
It appears to be poised to do just that. Last year, county commissioners showed their support for the occupancy tax increase, penning letters to Senator Brent Jackson and local N.C. Reps. Larry Bell and William Brisson. That request was introduced as legislation during the House’s short session at the beginning of the year, but the session adjourned prior to the bill being approved. It came back this summer.
Barefoot said the CVB was “pushing” to get the matter on the Board of Commissioners’ September agenda, specifically Sept. 11, due to the regular monthly meeting being postponed due to Labor Day. Barefoot said the goal, with a September approval, was to have the 6 percent tax effective Oct. 1.
“I’ve got the letters and the packets all ready to give to the lodging providers, as soon as we get final approval from the Board of Commissioners,” Barefoot stated.
A strategic plan for the Sampson County CVB, formulated from market research conducted by the Magellan Strategy Group LLC out of Asheville, identified the doubling of the occupancy tax as a primary goal for the group.
The plan listed a number of challenges for Sampson, including the size and diversity of such a large county; a relative lack of hotel rooms; a lack of ways for visitors to engage with the county’s rivers and agricultural traditions; a shortage of strong advocates for tourism growth; and very modest financial and human resources.
The pursuit of an occupancy tax boost, from 3 to 6 percent, would be a huge assist to those efforts, but would need to be coupled with the right partnerships that could stretch those funds, the strategic plan noted. Even with the proposed doubling, the county faces an uphill climb in a “cluttered marketplace,” the study said, noting that “out-of-the-box investments” of resources and partnerships with other organizations must be considered in order to stand out in a crowded market.
Of the revenue it takes in, the CVB board has the authority to spend up to two-thirds of funds on marketing and one-third of the funds on capital projects that have a public benefit.
And having twice the funds would be a massive boon to Sampson being able to market itself, CVB officials said.
Occupancy tax collections for 2014-15 in Sampson totaled $73,665, a far cry from the $257,162 collected in Duplin, $437,753 amassed in Harnett and $608,514 in Wayne that same year. By comparison, Johnston County saw just over $1 million in occupancy tax revenue while Cumberland was close to $5.6 million.
However, Sampson saw a sizable increase in occupancy tax collections to $93,990 in 2015-16 and then another slight uptick from there, to $97,556 in 2016-17 (July to June) — an increase of $3,565.
Visitors to Sampson County spent $48.3 million in 2015. While significantly below spending levels in other counties, that figure was actually $9 million higher than Duplin, and $10 million higher than Bladen. Visit North Carolina announced Tuesday that spending totaled $50.6 million in 2016, an increase of 4.7 percent from 2015 totals.
Gov. Roy Cooper announced in May that visitors to North Carolina set a record for spending in 2016 — spending nearly $23 billion, up by 4.4 percent from 2015’s total.
Barefoot said numbers are trending the right way for Sampson.
“Travel and tourism is an important economic generator that infused over 2 million in new dollars into our local economy last year,” said Barefoot, who noted those dollars have increased every year since 2013.
Expo Center director Ray Jordan encouraged CVB board members to attend the Sept. 11 meeting in support of the occupancy tax hike request. He also lauded Jackson, Bell and Brisson for backing the effort.
“If they didn’t stay on top of it, it might have fallen through the cracks,” said Jordan. “It had to pass a third reading and they were able to get it through during that short session Aug. 3. They put in a lot of effort on that.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.