Thursday, February 09, 2006

DCVB Like Duke

I've always been puzzled why more than a few people resent the success of Duke University. It may be in my head, but I don't think so, and it goes beyond basketball rivalries. In this respect and hopefully some others, DCVB experiences this same reaction. Most are positive about both Duke and DCVB with positive public opinion ratings, more than a few accolades and strong stakeholder support.

My gut tells me that, for those who resent this success, it's all about money, and here's why. Both Duke and DCVB seem to engender envy and maybe jealousy over funding. Duke is exceptional at raising development funds.

DCVB is self-funded from a special tax on visitors, thanks to the late North Carolina Senator Robert Swain of Buncombe County, who worked with tourism officials in the early 1980s to pioneer a local option tax on overnight visitors. Local option means the State Legislature grants the authority to each County on a case-by-case basis with stipulations.

This special tax was created specifically for the purpose of self-funding convention and visitor bureaus and to relieve the general funds of cities and counties from that traditional responsibility. Win/win, right? Visitor promotion pays for itself, new business is drawn to the businesses collecting the tax and local governments not only benefit from the freed-up general funds but also reap a 6 to 1 return in other visitor-generated tax revenues from general sales, property and fees.

So what is there to resent? The room occupancy and tourism development tax pioneers must have believed it would serve as a template to inspire other groups and needs to wean from the general funds of local government by proposing, along with closely related and willing businesses, other special tax/self-funding solutions. This would also free up significant amounts of local general fund revenue to redirect to core services and infrastructure.

For a few this has sparked true admiration. Maybe it's human nature or maybe they are just more vocal, but it seems more than a few are gripped by resentment and jealousy accompanied by the customary back-handed compliments. A few have even tried to undermine the original intent, devise work-arounds or diversions, all of which caused the State Legislature to tighten down definitions of promotion and marketing and embed stipulations. A special sub-committee was even formed to monitor compliance.

Maybe, like some people say, this is about politics and turf. To me that's still disturbing. I prefer to believe it may be more lack of understanding or philosophical disagreement.

What's truly puzzling is the lack of energy among other groups and related businesses to replicate the model. More often energy goes into trying to cannibalize the room occupancy tax and increase the burden on travelers in other ways, instead of identifying more closely related businesses and partnerships.

What’s wrong with this picture? Instead of rewarding and emulating innovation and win/win proposals, there are grousing, snide comments, back-dooring etc. The result is cynicism instead of continued innovation of funding sources at a time when some local governments truly are strapped.

It's time to move past resentment and challenge those so tempted with the spirit of Senator Swain and those who worked with him. It's time to insist on accountability... If people feel strongly about funding for other than core services and infrastructure and there isn't a sustainable way to do it with private funding, then they need to jump in and follow Swain's model.

It's time, rather than resenting successes like Duke’s fundraising ability or DCVB's funding formula, to closely examine them as best practices and model similar solutions.

Local governments need to put a sign on the door: If you want funding, come with a self-funding solution.

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