By Pauline Hovey, Greene County Field Officer
In the slightly more than two years since Greene County’s Transit Occupancy Tax (TOT) went into effect, how has the tax and the increased spending on tourism impacted Greene? The Free Enterprise Forum spoke with Tony Williams, director of the Greene County Economic Development Authority (EDA), and local lodging owners to find out.
“For the first time, in 2010 we had the money to effectively place ads in tourism-related publications and magazines,” Williams said, “and we’re now targeting the Northern Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. metro area.”
As of July 1, 2009, businesses that provide accommodations for overnight guests such as motels, hotels, B&Bs, boarding houses, and campgrounds, pay a 5 percent tax, of which the EDA receives 3 percent. In the first year, EDA received $72,856, and the Tourism Council, composed of a mix of local tourism-related businesses, including artisans, antique shops, and realtors, made recommendations to the EDA board on how to spend that money. Jillian Peatross, general manager of the Best Western in Ruckersville, is one of the Tourism Council members who helped make these recommendations.
“The county needs to have such funds available for marketing and bringing in tourists,” Peatross said. “The nice thing about having this tax is that 3 percent of the 5 percent collected has to be allocated to tourism, whereas before, the county could choose what it wanted to do with the 2 percent lodging tax. This enables us to do more things that benefit tourism.”
In addition to marketing, the TOT money has allowed the EDA to move its Visitors Center—previously located in a warehouse front office on Rte. 33 Business—to Rte. 29 South in a plaza with restaurants, shops, and businesses that generate traffic. “Most people didn’t even know where we were because we were located off the beaten path,” Williams said. Offering better visibility, the new site has been responsible for increasing the number of visitors to the center. In turn, this has allowed staff and volunteers to steer visitors to local establishments for dining and accommodations.
“Although we can’t track this, we have seen a lot more short-term business and more people walking in from Rte. 29, some of which are referrals from the Visitors Center,” Peatross said. “We have seen some level of increase in guests since the hotel opened in 2006, and a portion of that can be attributed to the work the Visitors Center and the county have done.”
The EDA has also been partnering with local tourism efforts such as the Discover Virginia Wine Festival and the Mid-Atlantic Power Fest to bring more people to the county, and this October, they will hold the first annual Discover Virginia Chili Cook Off. Combine the growing number of events and festivals with the addition of more attractive retail outlets such as the Super Wal-Mart, and the result has been an astronomical jump in the amount of sales tax the county collected—a 31-percent increase in the first quarter of 2011 compared with the first quarter of 2010, and a nearly 40-percent increase in the second quarter, according to the EDA.
TOT money has also enabled EDA to build a new, easy-to-use, more informative website and keep it up to date. Part of the money is used to send information packages to people interested in visiting or moving to the area.
“The whole movement with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) coming to this area gave us an opportunity to put together information packages on shopping and places to stay and eat,” Williams said. “Before DIA employees started relocating here, the Thomas Jefferson Planning District coordinated trips to the area, and we went up there and had contact with their HR person. We also coordinate with realtors to help people looking to buy houses.”
“The council has to be fair to everyone and be sure that the return on the money spent is to the county as a whole, rather than bring in revenue for only a few businesses,” Peatross explained. “Overall, I think tourism dollars are spent well. We’ve seen a steady increase in tourism in Greene, and we are hoping to continue to build on that.”
Chuck Swinney, owner of Chesley Creek Farm Cottages who also serves on the Tourism Council, agrees. “For me, it’s been a very busy year, one of my best, with a lot of tourism coming from the Best Western.”
Although it’s hard to track how guests are finding him, Swinney believes the EDA advertising on the state website and now getting into more print advertising can only help. “We’re trying to focus on getting people from within a 2- to 3-hour drive,” said Swinney, who has been in the lodging business for 16 years.
“It sounds good to have that amount of money coming in,” Swinney added. “It means people are doing business in the county. We have just about everything we need here in Greene County now.”
Pauline Hovey is the Greene County Field Officer for the Free Enterprise Forum a privately funded public policy organization. If you find this report helpful, please consider supporting the Free Enterprise Forum. To learn more visit www.freeenterpriseforum.org
Photo Credits : Greene County, Best Western, Chesley Creek Farm