Take a moment and look around. Notice the roads have been more crowded lately? And that it’s “hurry up and wait” for most any table in a local restaurant these days? And more folks are walking around our downtowns? This is tourism at work.
For the 15th consecutive year, the two-week U.S. Kids Golf World Championships is in full swing, bringing a few thousand people to town for golf on 11 Moore County courses.
And once they leave at week’s end, more folks will be coming in for the 119th annual U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst Resort.
What it all means is thousands of visitors — many of whom have returned year after year — and millions of dollars for local businesses and our tax coffers. And yet, year after year, Moore County has been leaving money on the table.
Many communities in the state that have tourism as a large part of their economies charge visitors a 6 percent occupancy tax on their hotel bills. In Moore County, though, the hotel room tax rate is just 3 percent — and not likely going anywhere anytime soon.
A Long-Running Debate
A debate has simmered for several years over whether the county should raise this tax and devote a portion to “product development,” or things that would stimulate and support more tourism locally. The debate for a few years centered around a youth soccer complex in Aberdeen, but the Board of Commissioners specifically rejected that two years ago.
A similar idea got batted around a couple of weeks ago. Officials in southern Moore County expressed an interest in having a higher tax help support their communities, which bear the brunt of supporting visitors when they’re here. Spending the preponderance on marketing — but not on keeping people happy when they’re here — can be counterproductive, they say.
“What I know of these programs is they are creating things to attract people to come here, but it doesn’t support them once they are here,” said Southern Pines Town Manager Reagan Parsons.
Many communities that have the higher 6 percent occupancy tax spend a portion on “product development” or share a percentage with local towns to help support town services that benefit tourists, like signage, traffic improvements and similar enhancements.
A Novel Approach
We’ve said in the past that the hotel tax should be increased, and that hasn’t changed. The current tax generates about $1.5 million. Two-thirds of that currently goes toward marketing and tourism promotion; the remainder goes to tourism-related expenses.
We did not support building a youth soccer complex — and we’re not keen on just giving a chunk to towns to offset expenses. But that doesn’t mean we oppose some new spending for “product development.”
We support putting extra dollars into what keeps this economy strong: golf tourism. But we also like the idea of putting some extra dollars into a “tourism development fund,” from which grants could be awarded. Those grants could sponsor a film festival, a road race, a craft beer showcase or a significant equestrian event.
A fund like that, managed by tourism professionals, could stretch visitors’ tax dollars to expand opportunities for yet more visitors.
Recently, Phil Werz, the local Convention and Visitors Bureau president, said his board “is in no position to raise the occupancy tax in Moore County.” He suggests that county commissioners, who would have the final say, believe people locally are suffering “tax fatigue.” That’s silly because local residents wouldn’t pay the tax; visitors would.
And while you might argue it’s poor form to tax visitors more, the truth is the increase would be negligible — an extra $3 a night on a $100 room bill. No vacation has ever been crossed out because of an occupancy tax.
We can raise the occupancy tax, be creative and support all the varied interests to keep the second largest sector of our economy thriving.