Businesses always want to attract more customers. But if they frame that goal as a way to lure more tourists into York County, there may now be public funding available to help.
The newest application forms drawn up for people to apply for money from the county’s hospitality tax – money meant to promote tourist activity in York County – now gives an option for private, for-profit businesses to ask for tax funding for their advertising and even their construction needs.
Traditionally, hospitality taxes have been spent on promoting nonprofit events and activities that draw tourist spending to the county. The new applications, which received preliminary approval from York County Council last week, would give for-profit organizations the chance to draw from the same funds. The applications will need the council’s second and third votes of approval to take effect.
The consensus seems to be that anything that draws tourist money into the county – and thus boost the county’s tax intake – is a worthwhile use of hospitality funds, whatever organization is behind it.
“The example they (the county’s hospitality committee) used is, last year we hosted a national foosball tournament at a bar or restaurant in Fort Mill, and they weren’t really able to advertise it,” said Councilman Michael Johnson, who chairs the county’s finance committee. “This is something that could draw more tourism.”
The suggestion of spending taxpayer money on a private business is not without controversy, even among those tasked with deciding how the tax should be spent. When the hospitality tax advisory committee submitted its proposed application form to county council, it attached a note that the subcommittee which drew it up “is at an impasse” about including private organizations.
“Some members feel like we are limiting opportunity by excluding private entities,” the submission says. “The opposing view feels like there may be political repercussions for council and that ‘for profit’ entities should not benefit from the fund.”
Ultimately, Watts Huckabee, chairman of Hospitality Tax Advisory Committee, said the committee reached a consensus to allow for the possibility of a “public-private partnership” around a future development.
“We took a straw poll, and the majority were in favor of allowing someone the chance to apply for a public-private partnership, and I believe the (county) finance committee is also in favor,” Huckabee said.
The application has two components to it: If hospitality funds can be spent on marketing an event, the nature of the organization doesn’t seem to raise any eyebrows. But council members were less inclined to support a “capital” application they feared could leave the public on the hook for maintaining a private business facility.
Johnson said any organization that applies for hospitality funds would need to raise their own funds to deal with any long-term maintenance needs.
“They would need to put the money aside and say every 10 years, ‘Here’s a new roof or a new field,’ ” he said.
At a previous meeting, County Attorney Michael Kendree clarified that the hospitality tax ordinance makes no distinction between for-profits and nonprofits, and the committee is free to consider whatever applications it wishes. Both the committee and county council members have stated a preference for moving forward with as many applications as the hospitality board might receive.
“Our focus is not on turning anybody down, but on helping them through the process,” said Tom Smith, vice chairman of the hospitality committee, “and then if somebody is not thorough, we can tell them to go back to the drawing board.”
York County’s 2 percent hospitality tax is raised from restaurants operating only in the unincorporated parts of the county, not inside the municipalities. The tax is projected to collect $1.7 million in revenue this year.