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UPDATE: Carden avoids crossfire as tax debate looms

Beth Carden Beth Carden

When Beth Carden says she was "finally relieved" to get the official stamp as director of Henderson County's Travel and Tourism agency, it's easy to see why.

Carden had served as acting director of the tourism-promoting arm of county government since the retirement of Melody Heltman, a big enough task by itself given that Heltman was the founding director and architect of the county's promotions strategy for more than 25 years.
That was not the least of it.
Carden, who was appointed director of the agency on Monday, takes the helm as the T&T board enters its most significant transition since it was formed. The first Board of Commissioners meeting she attends as director promises a robust and potentially tumultuous public discussion of whether to raise the occupancy tax and send the resulting $225,000 a year to Flat Rock Playhouse. If the board votes yes on that it will also, under the state law that authorizes the increase, restructure the governing board into the Henderson County Tourism Development Authority, ceding power to the agency itself.
By her first or second board meeting, Carden could be working with brand new board members (the legislation also changes how they're appointed and by whom). Even the name will be new.
"Obviously there's going to be a transition and in the board meeting in a couple of weeks I'm sure they will talk about it," said Carden. "In the meantime, this is our peak season, so we're keeping on the road to do what we need to do. Our magazine will be here Monday."
Carden has plenty of ideas of her own, including putting on a tourism conference next winter to enhance cooperation among all stakeholders and enhance tourism promotion.
"Until I talk to the board and see what their priorities are we'll continue to operate as we normally would," she said. "Filling the job has been a big issue for the board to deal with and with the legislation we have a lot to do in the future."

Battle lines drawn
The Board of Commissioners takes up the hotel tax during its regular meeting Wednesday, and battle lines have formed, indeed for some hardened. Commissioner Larry Young strongly opposes the increase while Mike Edney has been the lead commissioner working with state Sen. Tom Apodaca to enact the legislation.
Young said in an interview Friday that he did not think Playhouse administrators have been formally invited to present their case for the tax proceeds. "It will be a discussion item so they're welcome to be involved," he said.
Playhouse director Vincent Marini and its board president, Bill McKibbin, said they're not planning a formal presentation but plan to be there. On the Playhouse grounds, the actors and other workers are aware of the upcoming debate. Marini said a number of Playhouse supporters will be there wearing buttons to show their support, although Marini said he will discourage drama. "We don't want to make a scene," he said.
If the tourism tax passes, the Playhouse and the tourism promotion agency could be working more closely than ever. Marini and board members say their vision for the additional money is a broader and more inclusive campaign throughout the South and the country to promote not only the Playhouse but other attractions such as the Carl Sandburg Home, DuPont State Forest and downtown Hendersonville.

More power to new board
Originally set up in 1987 through a local bill in the General Assembly, the tourism promotions had been guided by a committee made up of four members appointed by the Board of Commissioners, four by the Hendersonville City Council and one from the tourism industry appointed by the Chamber of Commerce.
The new Tourism Development Authority would be made up of three members appointed by the Board of Commissioners, three members appointed by the Hendersonville City Council, one member each by the Fletcher and Flat Rock town councils and one recommended by the Chamber of Commerce and appointed by county commissioners.
The 1-cent increase in the hotel tax would raise $225,000 a year.
The increase would take effect only upon approval by the Board of Commissioners. The T&T board, which now operates as a department under county government, receives all its revenue from the occupancy tax, sale of merchandise, vendor fees and advertising in its tourism magazines. The budget for the current fiscal year is $1.3 million.

Tourism strong this year
For her part, Carden remains focused on the high season. The agency sponsors the Friday night Music on Main series, Garden Jubilee and other events. She is busy trying to hire a four full-time employee, an events coordinator. She has not troubling articulating the job description.
"I've worked every job but one," she said. She has been Heltman's administrative assistant, events coordinator and now acting director.
A native of Georgia, Carden spent 10 years with the Cobb County Department of Parks and Recreation. She and her husband, Billy Carden, owned and operated a trophy shop called Blue Ridge Specialties for 10 years before she took a job as director of the Transylvania County Chamber of Commerce.
"I live Henderson County," she said. "It's a great place to promote. Tourism is really doing very well right now. We're just going to continue to build momentum."