Moore County’s economy relies heavily on healthcare, tourism and agriculture, alongside smaller segments in military contracting and manufacturing businesses. On paper, things look good: success breeds success.
Substantial growth is currently underway for the top two key industries. FirstHealth of the Carolinas has kicked off construction of its new $68 million Cancer Center on its Pinehurst campus, and in the Morganton Park North development in Southern Pines, Pinehurst Surgical Clinic and Pinehurst Medical Clinic are building new facilities.
Plans are also coming together for Golf House Pinehurst, USGA’s investment in a second headquarters for its golf equipment research and testing division, in addition to a combined museum and welcome center, offices for the USGA’s Foundation and the organization’s turfgrass agronomy section. In addition, Pinehurst Resort has announced plans to build a boutique hotel that will also serve as player housing and a media operations center during future U.S. Open Championships.
But the expanding tourism sector delivers a mixed blessing. There are more jobs and opportunities for retail and service industry growth, but more overnight visitors also puts more demand on infrastructure and basic services like public safety, transportation and sanitation.
Town leaders and officials from Aberdeen, Pinehurst and Southern Pines recently met with Triangle J Council of Government representatives for a bimonthly discussion of “big picture” concerns that affect all three communities. The primary topic was the potential room tax increase that county leaders are expected to consider next month.
The Pinehurst Southern Pines Aberdeen Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), Moore County’s tourism marketing organization, has championed raising the occupancy rate tax, as it’s officially known, from 3 percent to 6 percent. State law requires that two-thirds of this tax revenue be spent promoting travel and tourism initiatives and one-third spent for tourism-related expenditures.
More recently, the CVB has looked at the notion of a tourism development project fund using one- or two-percent of a possible room tax increase that would be set aside like a grant program. Towns or nonprofit organizations could apply for funding a “wish list” project that meets set criteria as a tourism-related expense.
However, leaders from southern Moore’s three largest municipalities would like to see a broader plan that takes into account some of their ongoing expenses, particularly for regular special events.
Aberdeen Town Manager Paul Sabiston said if the room tax is increased, he would advocate instead for a formula that provides each of Moore County’s smaller municipalities with a “small upfront amount.” In addition, he recommended a secondary calculation based on revenue or number of hotel rooms by town.
“I don’t have a problem with using a portion of proceeds for the product development fund. Just not all the proceeds,” Sabiston said. “I think it is important for all towns to receive a fairly predictable amount to be spent under what is allowed by state requirements. Personally, I would not support a plan where we have to go back to the CVB and then waiting and seeing if we get a grant. That is not what Aberdeen is looking for.”
Pinehurst Village Manager Jeff Sanborn noted that a 3 percent increase to the room tax would generate approximately $1.8 million annually, based on recent collection rates.
“Tourism promotion and marketing is really the role of the CVB while the towns have the burden of tourism-related expenditures,” Sanborn said.
Southern Pines Mayor Carol Haney agreed.
“We feel like we need to get our fair share. If it all goes to one big project, that means you have one big winner and then the others are losers. We feel there should be more equitable distribution,” Haney said.
Southern Pines Town Manager Reagan Parsons said if Moore County is looking at the potential for a room tax increase, then the towns deserve a seat at the discussion table. He also expressed frustration that the CVB has not followed up with the Tri Cities Working Group members since their conversation about the room tax in the fall of 2019.
Parsons added that he discussed several different possible funding formulas with Sanborn and Sabiston.
“There seems to be agreement that a tourism development pot should be part of it, but it needs to be separate from some money going back to the communities,” Parsons said.
Sabiston said a three percent increase would provide ample funds for both the CVB and towns to expand their tourism outreach.
“It is great to advertise for all of Moore, but we have our own twists. We want to do our own thing for Aberdeen, as does Southern Pines, as does Pinehurst, and they should have that leeway,” Sabiston said. “To me the first and foremost principle is that we can expect some direct allocation to the towns. That needs to be first.”