If you’ve been in Buncombe County for a while now, you’ve probably caught yourself musing aloud, “You know what this community needs? A bigger Tourism Development Authority! A really behemoth, juggernaut tourism entity that swallows up other entities!”
OK, clearly no one has that wish. Well, maybe the TDA …
It looks like this scenario may play out soon with the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority and the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission. Take a guess at who might be absorbing whom.
Fairly and unfairly, the TDA has become a lightning rod for discontent in the area over the past years, mainly because they have an enormous budget (pushing $40 million annually), and by law they have to spend two-thirds of it promoting the area so more tourists will come in. And we have a lot of tourists coming in — 12.5 million visitors in 2021, according to the TDA.
A lot of those visitors stay overnight, spending money with local businesses, restaurants and hotels — $2.6 billion in Buncombe County in 2021, according to the TDA.
“The 37 percent of visitors who stayed overnight contributed 73 percent, almost three quarters, of total visitor spending,” the TDA has said. “That equated to $1.9 billion in 2021.”
Sports Commission has had strong success
So, what does this have to do with the Sports Commission, which is known for bringing into Asheville the Southern Conference basketball tournament, the Maui Invitational basketball tournament, and a variety of other events, including high-profile tennis tournaments?
Heads in beds. Sports tourism brings in about a third of all overnight stays in Buncombe, so the Sports Commission, which has just two employees but a legion of volunteers, has become a big player.
The TDA recently commissioned a study conducted by the Huddle Up Group, a Phoenix-based sports consulting firm. The consultant issued its 35-page “Organizational Strategic Plan” a couple of weeks back, and it recommends the TDA absorb the Sports Commission.
Actually, it states, “The ABRSC should become part of the auspices of Explore Asheville.”
You say “tomahto,” I say “hostile takeover.”
Of course, the Sports Commission itself is being diplomatic about all of this, or at least interim Executive Director Chris Smith is.
“I think the Sports Commission has done an amazing job in utilizing sports tourism to bring quality sporting events to our area residents, and in doing so has given an economic boost to our hotels, restaurants and business,” Smith said. “My hope and belief is this will not change regardless of which model is chosen.”
Hey, he might be working for the TDA soon, so he’s got to walk on eggshells here.
Sports Commission Board Chair Stephen Zubrod was a little more direct at the TDA’s monthly meeting last week.
“One question that has yet to be clearly answered is, ‘Why is the TDA planning on absorbing the Asheville Sports Commission?’” Zubrod said, noting that the commission’s mission “goes far beyond increasing hotel rooms,” even though more than 30 percent of rooms are from sports tourism, yet the sports commission has less than 1 percent of the TDA’s budget. “The performance of the Asheville Sports Commission in bringing marquee sports events to Asheville has been outstanding.”
Yes, the TDA is already the primary funder of the Sports Commission, which was formed in 2010 by a group of civic leaders who wanted to bring more sporting events to the area. The four founding members were the City of Asheville, Buncombe County, UNC Asheville, and Explore Asheville/the Buncombe County TDA.
And the four representatives of those groups will have the final vote on whether the absorption takes place. Those voting will be TDA President and CEO Vic Isley, UNCA Athletic Director Janet Cone, Buncombe County Commissioner Amanda Edwards, and Asheville City Council Member Sage Turner.
The TDA provides $230,000 annually to the commission, while the city and county chip in $45,000 each.
Zubrod didn’t say this, but I will: Why fix what isn’t broken? The commission is running well, bringing in excellent events, and generating a windfall for tourism.
The ‘sustainability’ issue, and transparency concerns
The TDA, its supporters and the consultants’ report all talk about problems with the “sustainability” of the current model, and about the need to have a united front when pitching organizations on bringing their events here. But the sustainability of the model comes from the TDA itself, which has a pipeline of occupancy taxes to pull from that don’t seem in danger of drying up anytime soon.
To me, it would be like if your car mechanic told you, “You know, I’m worried about the sustainability of your vehicle, mainly because I’m thinking of removing the spark plugs.”
In short, this feels like a power grab to me, a way for the TDA to claim more territory in this town by taking over an independent nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization with its own board of directors.
Turner, the city council member, says right now it’s a pretty clear 3-to-1 vote in favor of merger. She will be the only nay.
“I would like to see it remain independent,” Turner said. “It’s been strong on its own. It was formed as an independent nonprofit organization for this purpose — to produce great sports events and community events in our community. And it’s been successful at it.”
Like Zubrod, Turner says, “I just don’t understand why it’s so important that the (Convention & Visitors Bureau/TDA) absorb the Sports Commission.” She does want to see some changes made with the commission, like expanding that voting bloc from the four founders to a larger group.
As a journalist, I also have concerns about the openness of how all of this has been done, as does Turner. While some city leaders have slowed the takeover in recent weeks, it also feels like it’s been done with a degree of openness that is, shall we say, about as clear as a solid basketball backboard.
“One of my concerns is the general transparency of it all,” Turner said. “We have a community that at times is at odds with its tourism and or level of it, and the body that controls the marketing of our city, and so on. And here we have a situation where they are set to gain momentum, revenue, and be empowered to make more decisions for our community.”
I know the TDA is going to slap me upside the head with a recent survey — which it paid for — that showed, “An overwhelming majority of Asheville and Buncombe County residents (84%) agree that tourism benefits their community …”
But look, I can tell you, after conducting a totally unscientific survey of people who’ve reached out to me for years, that a lot of people around here are very uncomfortable with the level of clout — and money — the TDA wields. So the TDA taking over this organization may not poll real great.
Not a power grab?
Besides spending money on advertising, the TDA also funds a lot of projects around town that benefit locals and tourists alike. Since 2001, the TDA has issued grants totaling $60 million for projects ranging from new ball fields and theater improvements to greenways and $1.5 million toward a new track at UNCA (the TDA board approves these, not Isley herself).
When I mentioned via text to Isley that some people consider all of this a “power grab,” she said, “I wouldn’t characterize it that way at all.”
“This process is intended to build upon the success of sports tourism efforts over the last 13 years and evolve with (a) sustainable model for the next generation,” Isley said.
I talked to Edwards over the phone, and while she favors a merger, she stressed no votes have been taken yet. She too says she wouldn’t characterize this as a power grab.
“I definitely do not view it through that lens,” she said. “I view this decision through the lens of, ‘How do we maintain a sustainable Sports Commission?’”
The Sports Commission, Edwards said, “has been very successful in recruiting events and recruiting and retaining incredible volunteers. And I definitely think they deserve a lot of credit in those two particular areas.”
“Where the challenge has come in is really a sustainable funding model,” Edwards said.
Again, I’ll point out the TDA is the entity that sustains that model, year in and year out.
The consultants’ report recommends the absorption, but it also recommends allowing the sports commission to retain its nonprofit status, which would allow it to continue to fundraise and secure sponsorships. But it would be under the “auspices” of the TDA, which means, ultimately, the TDA would have ultimate authority.
I asked Edwards about the perception in the community that the TDA is too powerful and that Joe Sixpack in Candler might not want them gaining more clout.
“The fact of it is they’re already funding the Sports Commission at a very significant level,” Edwards said. “And so I struggle a bit with understanding how it could be seen as becoming even more powerful, because of the level of investment and commitment that they already made to the sports commission.”
Edwards did allow that she was somewhat surprised by the recommendation from the Huddle Up Group, as “they were very forthcoming that this is not typically the recommendation they make, but it was solely made on, ‘How do we sustain the Sports Commission?’
“So, knowing that this is not their normal recommendation, it spoke to me about how serious the sustainability issues are within the Sports Commission,” Edwards said.
Sometimes ‘Good today is not good tomorrow’
Jon Schmieder, founder and CEO of the Huddle Up Group, said he’s done more than 150 studies, and he headed sports commissions in Tulsa, Denver, and Phoenix before starting the consulting business. Tulsa’s commission was part of the Convention & Visitors Bureau there; Denver was a standalone commission but later joined the Convention & Visitors Bureau; and Phoenix was part of the county and became a 501(c)(3).
“Sometimes a structure that is good today is not good tomorrow,” Schmieder said.
A standalone organization runs the risk of one or two events flopping, thereby creating a budget crisis, for instance.
Nationally, standalone sports commissions are in the minority, and Schmieder said most of those that do remain are in large markets. Smaller market standalones are “pretty rare,” he said, although he noted Jacksonville, North Carolina and Greensboro and the Triangle commissions are standalones.
“There are a couple in North Carolina, but that’s becoming less and less the norm than when I started out 27 years ago,” Schmieder told me. “Most of them — for funding reasons — have landed in the tourism bureaus.”
While I’ve heard some rumblings that Schmieder’s group delivered the results the TDA wanted — and paid for — Schmieder dismissed that notion out of hand, saying, “Our industry reputation is pretty good, and I don’t think we’ve ever fallen into that trap.” Also, Schmieder was adamant that, “At no point in time did we change the recommendations” part way through the process.
“I’m a standalone sports commission guy — that’s my DNA,” Schmieder said. “But at end of the day, if you can’t sustain yourself, you have to find a different structure.”
Schmieder believes the commission could hold a stronger position in the community with the backing of the TDA, and it would give the commission a seat at the table in discussions about development and funding of athletic facilities.
Maybe a third path?
But Turner believes the CVB and the TDA boards can “take steps towards being better partners, and doing some of these projects and future sporting events and facilities together.
“And I think they can be better partners without being the parent corporation,” she added.
Zubrod, the commission board chair, floated the idea of a third option at the TDA meeting, instead of what he termed a “win/lose” proposition of a straight takeover. The commission proposes an option in which it continues to operate as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and the parties collaboratively develop a Memorandum of Understanding “with clearly defined goals, roles, responsibilities.”
Also, they use upcoming “listening sessions” to work through Memorandum of Understanding details.
Turner and others pushed for these listening sessions, which will both take place on the first floor of the County Administration Building (200 College St.) at 4 p.m. May 17, and 9 a.m. May 18.
Zubrod then asked this question of the TDA board: “Are you willing to take on the financial risk, the increased cost, and the potential reputational damage of taking over ABRSC?”
It’s a good question.
Here’s the bottom line to me: When I asked Turner if the sports commission would lose a level of independence under the TDA, and if a takeover would mean the TDA would exert even more influence in the community, she said, “Yes, absolutely.”
“And that is how I understand it when I ask the question, ‘Who will make the decisions at the end of the day on which events come to our community, and which are funded and how?” Turner said. “And the answer was, ‘the TDA board.’ ”
Call it what you want, but that’s a power grab.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org