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Tourism development on horizon in Unicoi County

Sue Guinn Legg • May 18, 2018 at 8:14 PM

ERWIN — The Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County is working to create a tourism development department to tap into what is believed to be a largely untouched source of job and revenue growth for the county.

On Monday, the board approved a proposed $49,500 budget for the new department to be operated within the JEDB in office space provided at no cost by Erwin Utilities.

Expenditures include a $20,000 salary and $1,600 in payroll tax for a part-time tourism director, $20,000 for marketing and website development, $4,500 for travel and training and $3,400 in miscellaneous equipment and supplies for a total first-year operating cost of $49,500.

Funding sources include $37,500, or 75 percent of the county’s total hotel/motel tax collections, and $12,000, or 60 percent, of the county’s river rafting excise fees.

JEDB Director Tyler Engle said the next step will be to seek the county commission’s approval of the proposed funding sources.

In proposing the new department, Engle said a recent tourism development study strongly recommended the county employ a tourism director to serve as point person for developers, and the JEDB had worked closely with the Northeast Tennessee Regional Partnership to create a framework for that office at a no-frills cost.

NETREP CEO Mitch Miller said while the county’s potential for tourism revenue is vast, its realization of that potential is far behind surrounding counties, and particularly those just across the mountains in North Carolina.

Measured by payroll, Miller said data shows Unicoi County generated $1.85 million in tourism employment dollars last year compared to $6.19 million generated in neighboring Madison County, N.C.

“So we need to work it,” Miller said.

JEDB Chairman Lee Brown said the tourism department is something the board feels it “should take the lead on and make happen. If we don’t, we’ll remain where we are, which is sitting here talking about it.”

Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said the town’s part-time tourism development director had more than paid for herself. And Erwin Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff said following the advice of professional consultants had paid off well for Erwin and cited the Morgan industrial property as an example.

“The experts on this (tourism) didn’t take long to ID (that) we need a person,” Rossenoff said.

Engle agreed, saying “a lot of people will be employed and a lot of revenue will made” at the Morgan site. And likewise for tourism development, Engle said, “$50,000 is a lot to ask to from the county, but that $50,000 could pull in $500,000.”

In other business Monday, the board also approved a new fiscal-year budget for JEDB.

The total $175,900 budget includes $69,800 in salary, payroll taxes and staff support for the director; $50,000 for membership in the regional NETREP development partnership; $13,000 for travel, training and prospect engagement; $12,500 for website and marketing development, industrial retention and development, industrial management and small business entrepreneurship; $9,000 for professional services; and $5,250 for office supplies and equipment.

Funding sources include $105,084 from the county, $34,980 from the town of Erwin, $20,836 from the town of Unicoi and $15,000 from the board’s corporate members.

Brown said the budget is larger than last year in keeping with the board’s anticipation of doing more in the new fiscal year. Citing progress being made on several development fronts, Brown said, “We don’t need to take our foot off the gas now.”

Engle noted that if the county funds the board at less than the $105,000 requested, funding from the two municipalities will also be reduced by corresponding percentages.

Last year the county provided $65,000 in JEDB funding, which Engle said was below the amount the board requested. He said he is hopeful the county will fully fund both the JEDB and new tourism department this year.

Other communications from the director and board members included news that two new restaurants will open soon in Erwin and announcement of a new tenant in Erwin’s Riverview Industrial Park is expected within the next two weeks.

Email Sue Guinn Legg at slegg@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.

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