Fort Mill Times

York County thinks of going natural with hospitality tax spending

Lake lovers flock to Ebenezer Park to cool off this summer. A trend of below-average temps in August is expected to continue.
Lake lovers flock to Ebenezer Park to cool off this summer. A trend of below-average temps in August is expected to continue.

When it comes to funding new tourist spots in York County, leaders want to go natural -- focusing on Catawba River, farms, Lake Wylie.

“The key is to determine the need, and if you do determine there’s a need, how do you fund it?” said Watts Huckabee, who just rotated off as chairman of the county hospitality tax advisory committee.

The committee recommends capital and other projects for funding to York County Council. Two years ago, Huckabee called for a broader vision of county tourism and a method for choosing projects from the limited funding pool. Hospitality tax dollars come from a 2 percent charge on food and drink in unincorporated areas of the county, like Lake Wylie. About $2 million comes in annually.

While funding can go toward promotion of festivals and events, a growing emphasis is on capital projects. The county had about $7 million stockpiled until a couple of years ago when Council approved allocating $1 million for the Clover School District Community YMCA water park and $2.45 million for a sports park in Lake Wylie, along with $1.6 million for Comporium Athletic Park in Fort Mill.

Huckabee and others called for a stall earlier this year on capital funding, so the fund can grow. As it did, he met with members from the tax advisory group, county finance and county convention and visitor bureau.

“One of the first things we did was we initiated conversations with different stakeholders,” Huckabee said. “We pulled all these entities together.”

The result is a guideline for where to direct capital spending to get the biggest county bang for the buck:

▪ The top pick is the Catawba River corridor, which could mean rafting, canoeing and whitewater activities.

▪ Agritourism comes next, which could be equestrian, hiking, mountain biking, an amphitheater or ATV park.

▪ Lake Wylie is the third priority. Ebenezer Park, Allison Creek and Buster Boyd access areas are potential investment areas, with possibilities from restaurants on the lake to docks for concerts.

Auvis Cole, interim director for Rock Hill/York County CVB, said a wide range of input went into the top three.

“The studies echo what we’ve pulled out,” he said.

Huckabee plans to take the results to the county finance committee next month, then to York County Council. While past funding decisions were “somewhat political,” he said he wants to see a clearer vision moving forward -- starting with the river.

“You’ve got this whole concept of, what could be done with the Catawba River,” Huckabee said.

Some projects are just ideas. Others are closer to happening. Council heard a plan in May for $4.5 million of improvements at Ebenezer Park on Lake Wylie in Rock Hill that includes a public swimming area, arced pier shelters in the water, water fountain plaza, playground, picnic areas, kayak and canoe launch, boat slips, trails, sand volleyball, basketball court and cornhole boards.

Council didn’t vote on that plan and no funding source was discussed, but Huckabee said it’s clear Ebenezer is an area of interest.

“This appears to be a priority from the county,” he said.

The hospitality tax group is working on another long-time goal — making sure everyone is paying it. The county doesn’t have business licenses for restaurants in unincorporated areas. Routinely there are restaurants discovered, said finance director Kevin Madden, not charging the tax and saying they aren’t aware of it.

Even a small flat fee business license may be a way for the county to keep in contact with its restaurants, to make sure everyone who should be is charging the tax fairly.

“We’re going to explore a business license for those restaurants,” Madden said. “Ultimately we’re looking for more teeth to be able to enforce that.”

All final funding decisions come from York County Council.

“Council will decide what the next steps should be,” Huckabee said.