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Hotel tax wins approval

The Legislature has passed the bill that will raise Henderson County's hotel tax provided county commissioners go along.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Tom Apodaca and Rep. Chuck McGrady, would raise the occupancy tax on lodging from 5 to 6 cents and direct the proceeds —$223,000 a year — to the Flat Rock Playhouse. It must be passed by the Board of Commissioners to become effective. Commissioner Larry Young opposes the change but other commissioners have spoken in favor of it.

The legislation requires that money be directed to the Playhouse, with a two-year sunset on the provision. It passed in the state House 87-27 after clearing the Senate Monday night.

"I think we're really in a position where in a way the two-year situation gives us an opportunity to show what we can with this money" in a broader marketing effort, said Playhouse director Vincent Marini. The Playhouse is already spending more money than ever to promote group sales and attract visitors from outside the region. "This level of funding enables us to take that to the next level."

Young's comments have not accurately "represented our approach," he said. He said the Playhouse will be able to partner with Travel and Tourism, innkeepers and other tourist destinations to market the county as a whole.

The bill had passed last Monday in the House and then on Thursday in Senate, where it was amended. It got derailed in the House after Finance Committee leaders balked at the allocation of money to the Playhouse.
Apodaca added that provision in the Senate version. The House refusal to go along triggered the creation of a conference committee to work out the bill. Apodaca said Sunday he believed he would be able to get support for the bill in the House after he explained the details. The Playhouse money expires after three years. And the tax would go up only if the Board of Commissioners votes to raise it.
"The bill that came over with that allocation is a sort of non-standard bill and they wanted to take a look at it," McGrady said of the Finance Committee members. "I can't say (what will happen). I'm not on the conference committee."
McGrady said the concerns had nothing to do with the Playhouse specifically. He said he had heard little about the proposal from constituents.
"The House has guidelines for occupancy tax bills," he said. "With the direct allocation to whatever, that made the bill not compliant with the guidelines."
He said occupancy tax bills come freighted with a built-in 40 no votes from House members who oppose raising taxes at any level for any purpose. "So it gets pretty critical that you get the rest of the voters," he said. "When I realized that some members of the Finance Committee were more likely than not to vote against the bill the smart thing seemed to be to allow them and Sen. Apodaca to work it out."
Apodaca said the fact that the Playhouse allocation sunsets and that county commissioners must vote on the tax should resolve the House questions. He said the hotel tax is an appropriate source to fund the Playhouse, which draws nearly half its patrons from out of town.
"My answer (to opponents) would be this is not local taxpayers," he said. "They're tourists."
The bill also restructures the Travel and Tourism agency, now under the Board of Commissioners, into an independent Tourism Development Authority. It requires that membership be made up of three members appointed by the Board of Commissioners, three appointed by the Hendersonville City Council, one each by the Fletcher and Flat Rock town councils and one recommended by the Chamber of Commerce and appointed by county commissioners. It limits service on the board to five years.
Of the nine members, at least a third must be affiliated with hotel and lodging businesses that collect the tax and half must be "currently active in the promotion of travel and tourism in the county."