A $39,000 increased funding request for the Lake Wylie Visitor Center has some wondering whether the county should fund the facility at all.
Several York County Council members say they aren’t sure the visitor center warrants the money it already receives or the almost doubled amount requested for the coming fiscal year.
“I think I’m hearing a pattern on that one,” said Chairman Britt Blackwell.
Council passed the second of three readings May 18 for the budget year beginning July 1. Concerned with a need to raise taxes, members brought up items they want to look at closer to decide where costs can be reduced. Councilman Michael Johnson brought up the visitor center, along with curbed Council cellphone and travel costs, fire station design changes and other issues.
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“We are basically subsidizing the Lake Wylie Chamber of Commerce,” Johnson said. “…I’d like to see that change.”
The proposed budget requests $89,000 for the visitor center in the coming year, up from $50,000. Johnson said the visitor center is basically the chamber, which answers phone calls, directs people to attractions, and promotes tourism and restaurants.
“I think all of our chambers do exactly what Lake Wylie Chamber does,” said Councilman Robert Winkler. “All the other chambers apply for grants and get their funds …that way.”
Winkler doesn’t agree with continued funding for the center.
“I think we’re setting a very bad precedent – or have already set it I guess because we’ve done it for several years in the past – to just do a line item to a chamber when we’ve got six other chambers in the county that we don’t do a line item to,” he said.
Councilwoman Christi Cox does not believe the county should pay for the center.
“I don’t think it’s an essential function,” she said.
Councilman Bruce Henderson, who represents Lake Wylie, said the funding comes from hospitality tax, a 2 percent charge on food and drink in unincorporated areas, like Lake Wylie.
“We really need to have a clear distinction,” Henderson said. “It’s totally different from your regular tax, the way it’s levied.”
Henderson said Lake Wylie presents a unique situation where three main gateways come into York County. Past county officials and tourism leaders recommended the center in Lake Wylie, Henderson said. He would rather other chambers of commerce incorporate visitor centers than discount the one in Lake Wylie.
“I’m open to these other chambers,” he said. “I’m open to a visitor center, using it like you’re supposed to use it, just like the state calls you to use it.”
The Lake Wylie center also sees a better return on investment, Henderson said, by offering services from a small location relying mostly on volunteers.
“We’ve got a proof, a model for success,” he said. “It’s working.”
Charles Wood, Lake Wylie Chamber of Commerce board member, said the chamber and visitor center work together, but are not the same. With more than a dozen new communities in different stages of approval in Lake Wylie, Wood sees a vital role for the visitor center.
“It is imperative in order to grow York County and the Lake Wylie area, the visitor center be properly staffed with personnel,” Wood said. “We just simply don’t have volunteers to do the job.”
Visitors served by the center spend money on meals in Lake Wylie, paying into the county’s hospitality tax. Unlike municipalities where visitors have options for getting questions answered, Wood said, the visitor center is all there is in Lake Wylie.
“We certainly think it’s a hospitality tax item,” he said. “The nearest government service is 20 miles away. We get all the walk-ins and answer all the calls for service. We very much feel the hospitality tax should pay for the administration of the visitor center.”
Since the hospitality tax began in 2007, many in Lake Wylie argue more money should come back to the unincorporated areas that pay the tax, rather than to municipalities that have their own hospitality taxes.
Henderson sees visitor center funding as a place where money should be spent.
“We only have two choices with tax,” he said. “It’s either we repeal, or figure out some way to be fair with the money.”
Blackwell echoed past sentiments.
“We’ve got to come full circle on this and think about the county as a whole, what’s best for the county,” he said.
Henderson doesn’t want the visitor center issue to become a lightning rod for how hospitality tax money is spent, but thinks it could be if funding dries up.
“If we’re going to criticize and hold these other things at bay, at hostage, then other municipalities cannot double and triple dip anymore,” he said.
The chamber officially became a visitor center in 2008 with the opening of its location at Lake Wylie Business Centre on Latitude Lane, according to a March 2008 Lake Wylie Pilot article. Chamber president Susan Bromfield said then the chamber served as an unofficial visitor center for years, fielding calls from people looking for swimming areas or requesting maps, directions, hotels or events.
“The kind of visitors we get, a lot of times, are ones who are going to invest in South Carolina,” she said then.
Then state Rep. Carl Gullick, R-Lake Wylie, said, “This isn’t just a chamber building in the eyes of the state. This is a building that’s doing some of the state’s work for it. We’re darn lucky to have the chamber here.”
John Marks • 803-831-8166