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Messer, TDA in fight over museum funding

A dispute over museum funding has turned into a nasty fight between the Henderson County Board of Commissioners and the Tourism Development Authority.


The fight has already cost TDA board member David Nicholson his job as chairman; the Board of Commissioners replaced him with Shannon Clarke, a hotel marketing manager. Defying the county commissioners' desires, the TDA last week adopted a proposed interlocal agreement that deleted a long-term guarantee of future funding for the Heritage Museum that Board of Commissioners chairman Charlie Messer insisted on.
The commissioners' draft agreement included a sentence saying that the TDA "will not modify the annual grant to the Henderson County Historic Courthouse Corporation during the term" of the agreement and any automatic renewals. Messer rejected that, and and now the TDA has set a special meeting, on Thursday of this week, to take up the agreement with the guarantee of funding for the Heritage Museum.
"The contract that they saw last Wednesday, that's the one we want passed," Messer said. "If they had a meeting there wouldn't be too much to it because they know all about the contract. That really was the purpose to start with. I don't know why they couldn't pass it the last day of June."
Clarke, who left on a family beach vacation after last week's meeting, said in an interview that he had gotten the message from Beth Carden, TDA's executive director, that the commissioners and county administrators had rejected the TDA's version of the agreement.
"We were essentially given an ultimatum or they would have to find a new home within 30 days," he said.

Museum funding
The dispute centers on future funding of the museum and on how the museum spends occupancy tax money.
When it raised the occupancy tax by a penny in 2007, the Board of Commissioners directed that a half-cent of the county's occupancy tax go to the historic museum. The TDA is continuing the funding this year — with an appropriation of $125,000 — but wants to scale back the amount in the future. Clarke and Carden say they want to work with the museum board to help it become self-supporting. Messer said he is in favor of that, too, but won't allow the TDA to abruptly cut off funding.
"I don't have a number on how many years it's going to take to be self-sufficient," he said. "It might take a year, it might take three years. I don't want the TDA to say 'in six months you're on your own.'"
Clarke said that was never the board's intention.
"I feel that moving forward we should assist the Heritage Museum in possibly finding some alternative funding but not necessarily take away their funding," he said during the TDA meeting last week. "I think as we move forward over the next few months Beth and I discussed sitting down with the Heritage Museum to discuss the best plan or approach to seek a reduction of their funding over time."
At issue too is how the museum spends TDA money.
When the state Legislature restructured the county Travel and Tourism department last year, it gave the new governing board more power and independence but also spelled out how it can spend money. The law requires the TDA to spend two-third of the occupancy tax revenue to promote travel and tourism in Henderson County.
"When they appointed me to the board I was sworn in inside the county Courthouse and I agreed to be a good steward of the money that is put into our hands," Clarke said. "And the first thing was how it was spent. I know (the museum money) is not being spent outside the county to bring people in."
As the marketing director for Mountain Inn and Suites, Clarke said he has seen no evidence that the Heritage Museum puts "heads in beds," as TDA officials call tourists here for an overnight stay.
"It's just never happened," he said. "I was of the impression this would be a first step toward letting them be self-sufficient."
Carolyn Justus, the former legislator who chairs the Heritage Museum board, said it's important that the county sustain the commitment it made when it formed the museum in 2005.
"I just think that the county a few years ago allocated a half cent of the occupancy tax to be used for the Heritage Museum to portray the history of our area, and I think that's very important," she said. "There's a lot of the history of Henderson County that is not shown anywhere. Hendersonville, Laurel Park and Flat Rock all have history that people have written about. People haven't written a lot of history of the county areas."
The museum just held a successful fundraiser this month, she said, and it plans more fundraisers.
"It would be doubtful we could raise all our money, at least at this time," she said. "This is something for the county and the TDA to work out. I certainly hope it would be in favor of the museum."

Don't rock the boat
Despite the current fight, no one thinks the TDA realistically could divorce the county, which provides budget, human resources, maintenance, IT and other forms of support.
"It's a good relationship with them. We don't want to rock the boat on that," Carden said of the tourism agency's relationship with the Board of Commissioners. "To have this museum issue muddy the water, it takes away from what we're trying to form, a strong relationship with the county."
The county owns the Visitors Center, although Nicholson, who retired as Henderson County manager in 2005, said the tourism agency paid for the building through occupancy tax proceeds.
"We need to make it clear that there have never been any general county revenues used for the purchase, renovation or operation of the building," Nicholson said in a
three-page memorandum to TDA members about the museum funding dispute. He ended the report saying he was sorry he been unable to resolve the issue. "Clearly, I guess I can say that the county commissioners were not happy with my strong feelings over the issue," he said.
County Manager Steve Wyatt said the commissioners would be open to a discussion about museum funding when it begins crafting the 2014-15 budget.
"This is not that complicated," he said. "They just need to follow the recommendation of their director (on the agreement) and let her do her job I think we can get through this."
The museum funding and how it's used ought to be a topic for the TDA and the museum to discuss.
"Those are the issues that need to be addressed," he said. "Get a couple of people from the TDA, with Beth, and a couple of people from the Historical Museum and work through the process and take back what they do to their boards. They ought to be able to do that in a couple of months. Those two entities need to get together and come up with a plan that works for everybody."