By Connie Leinbach
After receiving an outpouring of mostly negative comments about a proposed tourism authority for Ocracoke, Hyde County Manager Bill Rich Thursday night unveiled a revised plan for enhancing tourism especially in the shoulder seasons.
Instead of a tourism development authority that would levy an additional 2 percent on top of the 3 percent occupancy tax already in place for all short-term lodging stays, Rich wants to work within the 3 percent already collected.
He proposes to allocate $100,000 from the current Occupancy Tax coffers and hire a county employee who would be part public information officer and part marketing person.
Working under Kris Noble, Hyde County planning and economic development officer, this new person would help knit Ocracoke’s disparate marketing together to get more tourists here in the off season.
“To fill heads-in-beds in the shoulder season,” would be our mission,” Rich said to a crowd of more than 25 islanders Thursday night in the Ocracoke Community Center.
The goal would be to raise at least $3 million more money for the county through
increased tourism revenues, Rich said.
Noble said this new county employee would work synergistically with the groups on the island currently doing tourism marketing, such as the OCBA, and that the resources of her office could better position Ocracoke in the statewide tourism industry.
This new entity, yet to be titled, would have a three-person oversight board from the hospitality industry on the island, Rich said.
“This is important to Ocracoke, but it’s even more important to Hyde County,” Rich said.
In February, Noble presented a proposal for a Tourism Development Authority especially for Ocracoke that would be funded by raising the 3 percent Occupancy Tax to 5 percent. Revenues from that added 2 percent would only be used for Ocracoke, and out of that money the proposed board would hire a full-time county employee devoted to tourism marketing and be a liaison to the mainland.
At present, there is slightly more than $500,000 in reserve in the occupancy tax fund collected on Ocracoke.
Each year, a five-member board entertains requests from Ocracoke nonprofits and recommends dispersal of the funds.
Hyde County is one of only two counties in the state that is allowed to grant funds for any public purpose, not just tourism. However, Hyde County still controls the money and the commissioners still must approve all of the Occupancy Tax Board recommendations, as well as this new proposal by Rich.
Rich said he will make this revised proposal to the Hyde County commissioners at their next meeting April 6. Commissioner Earl Pugh Jr of Lake Landing Township on the mainland, who attended the meeting, told the group that the commissioners need to hear islanders’ comments. Comments about this idea should be emailed to Lois Stotesberry, the county clerk, firstname.lastname@example.org, no later than March 27.
“What if we have more people come and lots of businesses are closed?” asked Ashley Harrell, co-owner of Gaffer’s Sports Pub.
“Then the businesses that are open will be slammed,” Rich said.
Bob Oakes, owner of Ocracoke Island Realty, cautioned that rates for rental houses are lower in the off-season.
Sundae Horn, the travel and tourism director for the OCBA, noted that the OCBA with its limited resources has done a lot to market the island and connect with tourism consortia. She said she has noticed a certain resistance among some business owners to enhancing off-season business too much.
“Some people like to have their winters off,” she said.
Others in the audience remarked that Ocracoke businesses seem to have been closing earlier and opening later each year.
“If the (customers were) here, you’d have people open,” noted Wayne Clark, owner of Edwards of Ocracoke. “Where we need help is spring and fall.”
Bill Gilbert, owner of the Anchorage Inn, and Leslie Lanier, owner of Books to Be Red, both said they would open in winter if people were here.
Hyde County Commissioner John Fletcher cautioned against having a committee running the bureau.
“Have one person do it right, rather three or four and one not knowing what the other is doing,” he said.
State legislation passed in 2006 but never enacted allows for the creation of a Tourism Development Authority that would be empowered to collect another 2 percent on the 3 percent that’s currently collected on all short-term lodging and cottage rentals. This tax is in addition to the 6.75 percent North Carolina sales tax.
Following a public meeting Feb. 11 about this, the county received an outpouring of comments, most against raising the occupancy tax and adding a new Hyde County position, and the proposed tourism authority resolution was not on the March 2 commissioners’ agenda. Rich read several of these comments at the opening of the meeting.