What seemed like an imposing, bottlenecked list of requests for county hospitality tax money may not be after all. And just in time for the county to start spending.
Last spring, York County Council voted down a proposed short-term moratorium on hospitality tax capital spending, but also recognized there wasn’t much money to spend. Several large projects in Lake Wylie and Fort Mill had drained the account from about $6 million to just more than $750,000. About what the county approves each year for festival and event promotion from the fund.
The citizen advisory group tasked with recommending projects doesn’t expect any capital funding decisions from Council until mid-summer or fall. The hospitality tax, a 2 percent charge on food and drink in unincorporated areas that is used to fund tourism projects, brings in a little more than $2 million annually.
In the past 12 months, the advisory group heard from more than a half dozen groups looking for almost $18 million combined. Yet only one project, a $4 million indoor recreation facility in Rock Hill, has enough information in for the committee to vote. The group likely will make a recommendation at its March or April meeting.
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Others need more work. The $5.5 million Catawba Park proposal in Tega Cay needs a new impact study from the county convention and visitors bureau. The $3 million NarroWay plan in Fort Mill needs a new application entirely. Other projects have been closed outright due to lack of information or changing plans.
All groups who made pitches to the advisory group were notified the group still needed something to be considered. The rest is up to the applicant.
“If the communication is clear, the onus is on them,” group member Hannah Davis said.
More detailed plans could emerge from those groups or others when funding comes in and the county starts allocating it. Which is what happened before, when hospitality tax revenues banked up to the point changes were made in how the county wanted to spend it.
Groups like the Fort Mill School District (sports fields at Riverview Elementary School), Clover School District and Upper Palmetto YMCA (aquatic center in Lake Wylie) and Lake Wylie Athletic Association (sports complex along Crowders Creek) tapped into the new revenue source before it dropped so low other plans were put on hold. Several of the groups presenting plans since did so knowing little to no money was available, at least soon.
For the advisory group, the last several months of the unofficial funding hold are an opportunity to stop voting yes or no on pieces to the puzzle without looking at the larger picture itself.
“It’s a more active approach to capital project tourism,” said Chairman Watts Huckabee, long a proponent of a county master plan for hospitality tax funding decisions.
The Convention and Visitors Bureau, tasked with promoting events at whatever facilities the county may approve, is on the same page.
“We need the full laundry list of current and future projects to consider,” said David Grigg, CVB board member.
Grigg’s group is meeting with stakeholders countywide to identify potential projects. He sees their role as complementing the hospitality tax group’s. By looking at all known plans at once the tax group can make the best decisions to benefit the most people in York County, rather than approving whatever shows up on their doorstep first. Then, the CVB can do its job better.
“Our role is to make sure people know about it, and come take advantage of it,” Grigg said.
Tax group member Drew Williford sees potential in both groups working together.
“I’d like to see a pipeline for what’s coming up,” he said.
York County Councilwoman Allison Love said there are “some things on the horizon,” notably a lease agreement with Duke Energy for acreage near the public access area on Allison Creek. That agreement is part of Duke’s federal hydroelectric re-licensing agreement, needed to operate power plants along the Catawba River. The agreement highlights many amenity upgrades from restrooms at existing sites to new swimming areas, camp sites and more.
Hospitality tax revenue could go toward making an existing plan like the one at Allison Creek, bigger. Which could bring more access to what Love believes is an underutilized asset.
“It’s just not adequate,” said said of access to Lake Wylie. “The biggest draw in the county, in my opinion, is the lake. And we can’t get to it.”
While a larger plan for tax revenue spending is the direction group members want to go, they also realize the time element plays a role. For areas like Lake Wylie, said group member Winston Martinez, efforts to bring new tourism sites can’t wait too long or they risk losing the land. Martinez sees over-development as a threat not just to Lake Wylie, but to any potential tourism sites it could include.
“You have the lake,” he said. “You have such an enormous amenity, and you’re killing it.”
Kevin Madden, county finance director, said the way of evaluating potential hospitality tax project will lean heavily toward helping the areas where the tax is charged. Quantifiable economic impact back to unincorporated areas is a key piece.
“We are focusing on the biggest return on investment for our dollar,” Madden said.