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Old tensions renewed on CACVB board

Area businesses reeling from the pandemic want a greater say on the local tourism board and for it to invest more money in marketing the Charlottesville region.

During a recent Charlottesville-Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau board meeting, Travis Wilburn, co-founder of Stay Charlottesville, said a “toxic environment” has been created and that he feared “political retribution” for the businesses he’s involved in, “which is exactly how many of your board members feel and fear on a regular basis, from the ones that I’ve gotten to speak with.”

“This board needs representation across the board that actually reflects the community it serves,” Wilburn said during a state tourism industry presentation at the CACVB meeting. “Additionally, this bureau should be [an advocate for] tourism — the board and its members should be screaming from the roof how underfunded this bureau is.”

Since the board’s makeup was changed in 2018, when elected officials were added, industry representation on the board has been an ongoing concern. Hospitality representatives say there’s a disconnect between the board and what the industry actually needs.

At the April meeting, some board members outlined the concerns from industry members and pitched the idea of adding more tourism representatives to the board. But any adjustments or additions to the board need to be approved by the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and Charlottesville City Council.

Of the 15-member CACVB board, eight represent local governments. Monticello, the University of Virginia, the area’s Chamber of Commerce and four direct tourism industry reps round out the board.

More broadly, Wilburn said the area still has a branding problem since the Unite the Right rally in 2017.

Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker, who sits on the board, said the area’s economy has been serviced by Black people and other people of color who can never make it out of “poverty wage jobs” even though tourism brings nearly $700 million to the area.

“That should be unacceptable to all of us — at no point will I have anything to scream from any rooftops other than that,” she said. “When we ensure that people are able to participate in those systems, not just merely as workers of the systems, but they can thrive in those systems. We all should be centering our comments around how we make that occur versus how we restore a system that was in place that wasn’t serving people to begin with.”

Walker noted that she was the only person of color on the board and said it was important to have more diverse members.

“But if that centers around this national spotlight on Charlottesville and that there’s a branding issue — and not that there’s a cultural issue here that we desire to change — nothing will change, even if you get some different representation here,” she said.

Funding for the bureau comes from a portion of the city and county’s transient occupancy tax, which is levied on hotel and short-term rental guests. Due to the pandemic and low hotel occupancy over the last year, the CACVB will see reduced funding in the fiscal year that starts July 1, and the bureau is not renewing its marketing contract with an outside company.

In a letter to board members earlier this year, the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association urged the board to ask the city and county for additional funding.

“With vaccinations in progress, at some point in 2021 and 2022 it is anticipated that travelers will begin to once again consider destination options for travel,” the letter says. “This coming summer and fall are extremely important periods for our industry to begin recovery, yet at the very moment when recovery is vital, the budget for the CACVB is being reduced by $417,000 or ‐21%.”

The association also requested that representation on the board be shifted to include three members from the lodging industry and two members from the restaurant sector, while removing four municipal representatives.

“The entire budget for the CACVB is derived from a fraction of lodging taxes, yet only [one] of 15 board members comes from lodging professionals,” the letter says. “One of the largest sectors of our visitor economy is our restaurant industry, yet there is not a single board member that represents this important segment.”

As a past board member of the CACVB, Wilburn said he recognized there were flaws in the makeup of the charter.

“However, it’s no better now, and it’s quite honestly worse from a tourism perspective,” he said.

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At the insistence of the local governments, the board governing the CAVCB was overhauled in 2018 to include elected officials.

A letter sent by the elected officials said they were formally terminating the current agreement, which was enacted in 2004. The letter cited “the CACVB’s limited focus and reluctance to explore new tourism markets” such as the arts, wineries and breweries, eco-tourism, Black history, small businesses and outdoor activities such as trail hiking and mountain biking.

Ahead of a new agreement, the former executive director of the bureau resigned.

Elected officials changed the structure of the bureau’s board in 2018 to include one elected official and one high-level local government staffer from each locality, and both the city and county directors of economic development also are on the board. Two tourism industry organization representatives, appointed by each the county and the city, as well as reps from the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation also sit on the board.

The now 15-member board has changed multiple times since then, ultimately adding a second elected official from each locality, as well as representatives from each of the arts and recreation communities.

This isn’t the first time there’s been a push for more industry representation on the board.

When the board was looking to add more elected officials, Adam Healey, who served as the CACVB’s interim executive director during fiscal year 2019, said the board should have a majority of tourism representatives as members.

“To add elected officials onto the board without adding, proportionately, additional tourism industry folks is, in my opinion, a grave error and frankly political overreach,” he said at the time.

Healey also pushed for more funding for the bureau.

State law had to be changed to allow for elected officials to serve on the board. Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, introduced the legislation at the time, and he says he doesn’t regret it.

“I think it’s a good idea for there to be some combination of public and private sector [on the board],” he said in an interview. “The tax is not going to be levied unless the local government passes an ordinance. The government has a responsibility to oversee the expenditure of that money, so it makes plenty of sense for the local government to be involved in the board, and I support that, and I don’t regret putting in the legislation.”

“But I still think that the private sector needs to have a big voice in the strategies that are developed, and it’s my hope that the public and private sectors can work together and figure this thing out and not have to involve the legislature again,” he said.

***

Current conversations about the board’s makeup started in February when Heather Hill, a city councilor who also is on the CACVB board, came before the board to ask about looking at industry representation, as well as focusing on equity and getting more diversity on the board.

“I think that after my first year on the board, it’s become clear to me in my individual capacity that I don’t know that the way the [board] composition is right now is in the best interest of the bureau,” Hill said in an interview.

At the February board meeting, bureau Executive Director Courtney Cacatian said it’s important that tourism industry members see themselves represented in the bureau.

“I think there is a little bit of a disconnect between the board makeup and the industry that we represent, and that plays itself out in different ways” she said. “… But, really, as we’re looking forward to recovery, we want as many experts and as much trust as we can moving forward.”

At that time, Ann H. Mallek, a county supervisor who is also on the board, said she wanted to talk about it more at a later meeting.

“The localities could not get the board at the time, the way it was situated before, to do anything that the localities wanted because they were not in a majority situation,” she said. “… The reason that the numbers are the way they are is because the people who have the fiduciary responsibility of the money need to be able to make sure that things are being done according to the right processes.”

Mallek said she sees “spectacular improvement in every way” with the new management of the bureau.

“I’m also not in a hurry to go do something else,” she said in February. “I know that there are people in the industry who want handouts — they want their help — and I understand they’re desperate, but I’m very concerned that this organization may get itself stewed up in the same round and round and round in circles that was going on before.”

George Hodson, the county tourism representative on the board who works with Veritas Vineyard & Winery, said there have been times in the past where he wished there were more industry voices in the conversation.

“I felt like ultimately … the responsibility that the elected officials have is very different than what the industry is seeking sometimes,” he said. “I think both are valid, and I think having that balance in the right way is critical.”

***

At the April CACVB board meeting, Hill and board member Chris Eure presented their findings after meeting with a group of industry representatives — three from lodging in the county, one from a hotel in the city and two from area restaurants — and talked with them about representation, collaboration, communication and the budget.

“What we’re hearing from multiple sources was that there is still kind of a power dynamic, and it does prevent some of the more meaningful, rich dialogue from taking place, both within the board and outside of the board,” Hill said.

Hill and Eure also proposed changing the meeting agendas to add a public comment period and tourism sector presentations to help with collaboration, which received support.

But some of the current tourism industry board members expressed concern with asking sector reps to provide their input and time without giving the tourism industry more seats on the board.

“Even if that’s a stepping stone, I wonder how much time people will have for that if it doesn’t come with the responsibility and the authority of the actual board position,” said Gabe Silver, the recreation sector representative on the board.

Hodson agreed, and said there were times when board votes were split between representatives from the government and those from the tourism industry.

Albemarle’s economic development director, Roger Johnson, who also serves as the CACVB board chairman, said he would meet with Chris Engel, the city’s director of economic development, and Cacatian and come back to the board with proposals about the industry presentations.

“If you have individual feedback, you can email me or Chris directly. We will not share anything openly unless you so give us permission, and that will allow us to collect some information and come back to you with some general ideas,” Johnson said.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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