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County appoints leader for new Tourism Authority

The Henderson County Board of Commissioners began the process Monday of restructuring the county tourism promotion activities under a new Tourism Development Authority, appointing former county manager and current Apple Festival director David Nicholson as chairman and preserving current employees' status as county employees.

The commissioners acted as required under the bill enacted by the North Carolina Legislature. The commissioners had asked the local delegation to authorize a 1-cent increase in the occupancy tax to promote tourism, although board member Larry Young objected to the now controversial requirement that the new money be directed to the Flat Rock Playhouse. The board will take that question up after a public forum at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Historic Courthouse.
"Not only did this board of commissioners not ask for this law but we specifically asked for a different kind of law," Commissioner Bill O'Connor said. O'Connor objected to the Legislature's decision to transform the Travel and Tourism agency, which operated as a county department, into an independent body.
"They become really coequal in authority to the county commissioners and have no requirement that they bend to our will," he said. "There's very little we can do."
O'Connor voted against the creation of the tourism authority and the board appointments. Board appointments were initially staggered as three-, four- and five-year terms. As they expire, all seats will be reappointed for five years.
New members appointed, aside from Nicholson (appointed to a four-year seat) were Kimberly Smith, manager of Highland Lake Inn and restaurant, for a five-year seat, and Phyllis Rogers, with Manual Woodworkers and Day in the Country, for a three-year seat. The board chose Rogers over Chris Burns, the Summit Marketing president and current T&T board member. (Burns was nominated by Commissioner Charlie Messer; O'Connor, Young and Tommy Thompson voted for Rogers.)
The commissioners ratified the nomination by the Chamber of Commerce of Hampton Inn manager Bruce Pope. The Hendersonville City Council appointed three members last week. The town of Fletcher and village of Flat Rock have yet to make their appointments.
The time frame set out by law forces the new board to convene on Saturday, Sept. 1, the second day of the N.C. Apple Festival.
"It's a unique situation," County Manager Steve Wyatt said. "We had asked for some time to implement this. We suggested probably a fiscal year would have been good or Jan. 1, and we got Sept. 1."
Commissioners also decided that T&T employees would remain county employees and that the county would continue to own the building and handle the finances through its finance office, as it does now.
County finance director Carey McLelland said the tourism agency has gained from a strong lodging year. For the fiscal year ending on June 30, the agency had $300,000 more in revenues than expenses and a fund balance of $400,000.
"Despite the down economy, Travel and Tourism had a really banner year as far as occupancy tax. They ended up with a really good sound position on June 30," McLelland said.

An earlier version misidentified Bruce Pope. The appointee is the Hampton Inn manager, not the optometrist.