Commission returns tourism funding, creates new ED board

Published 10:31 am Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Star Photo/Abby Morris-Frye Chamber of Commerce Director Tonya Stevens spoke to the Carter County Commission regarding tourism promotion in Carter County.

Star Photo/Abby Morris-Frye
Chamber of Commerce Director Tonya Stevens spoke to the Carter County Commission regarding tourism promotion in Carter County.

Following lengthy debate during a marathon meeting session members of the Carter County Commission voted to return tourism funding to the Chamber of Commerce and to pursue a new inter-local agreement for a joint economic and community development board.
Tonya Stevens, director of the Elizabethton/Carter County Chamber of Commerce, spoke to the Commission and gave a presentation on the work done by the Chamber to promote tourism in Carter County.
“The Chamber started in 1890 as a Board of Trade and then in 1920 became a Chamber of Commerce,” Stevens said. “We’ve been tourism for as far back as anyone can find.”
The money allocated to promote tourism comes from the hotel and motel tax. That tax is collected by the state and, under the terms of a private act, is returned to Carter County to be funneled through a non-profit or civic organization to be used for the purpose of tourism promotion.
During a special called meeting of the Commission to set the budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year, the Commission approved by a narrow margin to put a freeze on funding for economic development through Carter County Tomorrow and tourism through the Chamber of Commerce. The Commission questioned the lack of a contract between the county and the Chamber as required under the terms of the private act.
Because of the Chamber’s long history, Stevens said it came as a surprise when the county decided to withhold funding for tourism from the Chamber.
“We are willing to have a contract. We know we are doing good work for tourism,” Stevens said. “What we don’t understand is why our funding was withheld to begin with. We were never told why the funding was being withheld.”
Stevens said no one from the Commission or the county government contacted her or anyone with the Chamber to inform them of any problems or concerns with the way the agency operated or the work it was doing.
“If there were issues with our performance it would have been nice for someone to have talked to us so we could work on that,” she said.
During discussion on the matter, County Attorney Josh Hardin said his research showed when the private act was passed in 1984 it required the county contract with a non-profit or civic organization to promote tourism but he could find no evidence a contract ever existed.
Commissioner Al Meehan cited the work done over the years by the Chamber to promote tourism and Carter County.
“I don’t see as a result of those 31 years of precedent any negative effect,” Meehan said.
While there had been no problem in the past, Hardin warned that did not mean the county should continue to operate the same way.
“Doing something wrong for 31 years does not justify continuing to do it wrong,” Hardin said.
Commissioner Ray Lyons voiced a concern with returning funding to the Chamber of Commerce due to the fact it is under the umbrella of Carter County Tomorrow and the county is currently involved in a lawsuit against CCT.
Following the presentation by Stevens, members of the Commission heard an alternative plan for tourism promotion from Susan Robins, administrative assistant to County Mayor Leon Humphrey, on behalf of the Mayor’s Office.
Under the Carter County Tourism Promotion Partnership Proposal presented by Robinson, the county would contract with Milligan College to be the agency to promote tourism. The partnership would also include Sycamore Shoals State Park.
As part of the proposal, the county’s welcome center would be moved from the current location at the Chamber of Commerce building on Highway 19E.
“Our plan is to make Sycamore Shoals State Park our new welcome center for Carter County,” Robinson said.
Following the presentation by Robinson and debate by the members, the Commission in a split decision of 13-10 voted to return the tourism funding to the Chamber of Commerce and have Hardin draft the appropriate contract.
In another split decision, the Commission approved adopting an inter-local agreement (ILA) to create a new joint economic and community development board.
In November, a resolution to create a new JECDB that was set to be considered was removed from the Commission agenda and deferred for action during the January meeting.
When questioned why an ILA was brought before the Commission instead of the deferred resolution, Hardin said it was his opinion the ILA was the appropriate way to handle the issue.
“Our resolution can’t create a joint anything,” Hardin said, adding the only way for a joint board to be created would be for the county and other municipalities to enter into an ILA.
During a presentation by Robinson on Carter County Tomorrow, Robinson informed the Commission that in her opinion and also the opinion of Humphrey, Carter County is no longer in compliance with state law requiring a JECDB. Both Robinson and Humphrey said in 2007 CCT dissolved the existing Carter County Economic Development Board, which ended the county’s compliance with state law requiring the joint board. Humphrey pointed out the county’s previous ILA did not include the City of Johnson City, which is partially located in Carter County and therefore required by state statute to be included in the county’s JECDB.
Following the presentation by Robinson on the alleged instances of non-compliance with state and federal law by CCT, some commissioners expressed their shock at the information.
“I don’t know how the state didn’t come in and shut this whole operation down,” said Commissioner Charles VonCannon, who himself once served as economic development director for the county.
Some members of the Commission asked if the compliance issues could be fixed with the existing economic development agency CCT rather than creating something new.
Humphrey said in his opinion the non-compliance issues with CCT could be fixed.
“It is our opinion that some of these things are not fixable,” Humphrey said.
However, Humphrey said, the proposed ILA is contingent upon the Cities of Elizabethton, Watauga and Johnson City approving the ILA and joining with the county.
“We have to have all four of them or we are no better off than we are now,” Humphrey said.
The motion to approve the ILA was made by Commissioner Nancy Brown and seconded by Commissioner Ronnie Trivett. The motion passed, approving the ILA by a margin of 13-9.

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