Today’s round of questions, my smart-aleck replies and the real answers:
Question: In January of 2016, Asheville City Council approved plans submitted by hotelier John McKibbon to transform downtown’s BB&T building into a luxury hotel. Among the promises he made in order to obtain that approval was that he would work and advocate for changes in the state law that prohibit any of the hotel room tax from going to the city to help it pay for public services, many of which are used by tourists during their visits. This is something the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority has steadfastly refused to support. That was nearly eight years ago, and to date no such changes have been made to the law. What, if anything, has Mr. McKibbion done to make good on this almost decade-old promise, and are those who were on Asheville City Council at the time who voted for approval satisfied with these actions?
My answer: I’m still trying to figure out exactly how the TDA spent four grand on 16 denim shirts. I mean, do they double as invisibility cloaks?
Real answer: While this does go back a ways, the Kimpton Hotel Arras remains quite the prominent landmark downtown, as it is the tallest building we’ve got. The hotel project also resulted in the total transformation of the former BB&T monolith, which I may have referred to more than once as the “Big, Brown & Tall” building. Yes, it was an ugly building, and when the hotel opened in the fall of 2019 it was quite an improvement.
McKibbon and Glenn Wilcox, Sr., whose company owned the BB&T building, were partners on the building’s renovation project. McKibbon, who made several commitments to the city, opted to gut the existing building down to the steel frame and concrete floors, in part because getting a new building of that height approved was unlikely back then.
Lauren Bowles, vice president of communications for McKibbon Hospitality, said via email that McKibbon’s commitments were met.
For background purposes, the state law that governs the TDA’s spending formula was changed last year, from a 75/25 percent split on promotion/advertising versus capital projects to a two-thirds/one-third formula. The legislation also created the TDA’s Legacy Investment From Tourism fund, which provides financial investments to tourism-related capital projects “that will increase patronage of lodging facilities and benefit the community at large in Buncombe County,” according to the TDA’s website.
Since 2001, the TDA also has had its Tourism Product Development Fund, which has provided more than $80 million through 61 investments in 40 community projects since 2001. But both funds still have restrictions on the types of projects they can fund.
Now, back to Bowles. She said, “As part of the zoning for the Arras project, these commitments were made, and the results are as follows:
- Contributed $250,000 to the Affordable Housing Trust
- Supported the initiative to change the tourist tax from 75/25 to 66.6/33.3, which has allowed more dollars to flow toward capital projects
- Spent $1 million on infrastructure, including new sidewalks, etc., to support the city’s residents and visitors
- Paid all associates a living wage with all entry-level associates now starting at $20.10 an hour, plus benefits — an entry wage that is higher than the city of Asheville and Mission Hospital
- Spent over $250,000 procuring pieces from local artists which are displayed throughout Kimpton Hotel Arras and Arras Vacation Rentals, in addition to the busker sculpture on the corner of Lexington and Patton
- Welcomed Asheville resident Meghan Marshall, owner of Mary’s Mountain Cookies, as our first retail tenant
- Supported Homeward Bound’s renovation of the former Days Inn Hotel on Tunnel Road to a homeless shelter by managing the renovation at our cost
Additionally, the project that was formerly the BB&T Tower and the adjacent garage now pays more than $1 million in property taxes and more than $2 million in sales taxes.”
Going back to the approval vote on the project, the Citizen-Times reported in 2016 that it passed, 5-2, with yes votes coming from Mayor Esther Manheimer, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler and council members Cecil Bothwell, Julie Mayfield, and Gordon Smith. Council members Brian Haynes and Keith Young voted against. Only Manheimer remains on council.
Manheimer told me via email that getting the state legislation changed “was a win, but it still falls far short of what is needed to make the investments in infrastructure to address the impacts of the over 12 million visitors to our city each year.
“Yes, John McKibbon was a strong voice advocating for changes in the legislation,” Manheimer said. “Behind the scenes, as hoteliers debated the merits of the changes, he was a voice in support of the city and county’s position to put more dollars in local infrastructure investments.”
“There was great debate among the hoteliers and, frankly, that mattered because the legislature was listening to them and their lobbying organizations,” Manheimer continued. “The more local consensus we could reach helped us get movement in the legislature, but, ultimately, it was the legislature’s decision to determine to what extent the room tax could be used to reinvest in Asheville and Buncombe County rather than be used for advertising to visitors outside the county.”
Julie Mayfield, now a Democratic state senator representing Buncombe County, said initial negotiations on changing the legislation started in 2019, before the pandemic.
“(McKibbon) was involved then and very supportive of a change, as Esther says,” Mayfield said via email. “By the time we got to 2022 and the actual bill, he was not involved, but he definitely was helpful and a strong voice before he moved away.”
Wisler said she was satisfied that McKibbon met his commitments.
Former Council Member Cecil Bothwell told me, “The only commitment that I know he kept was to not light the thing up like the Aloft (hotel). Per the others, I have no clue.”
Hey, the guy’s retired.
Gordon Smith said via Facebook message, “To my knowledge, there has been no advocacy. I remain dissatisfied.” When I mentioned Manheimer’s and Mayfield’s comments above, Smith said, “OK. I was not aware.”
Hey, the guy’s off council.
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