TDA endorses less direct spending on agencies, events
By Jon Hawley
Friday, May 24, 2019
By a split vote, the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank County Tourism Development Authority has endorsed a budget for next year that reduces direct spending on popular organizations and events.
The city-county tourism board voted 5-2 Thursday to move forward a roughly $752,000 budget for 2019-20 that cuts earmarks for Elizabeth City State University, the N.C. Potato Festival, Arts of the Albemarle and other groups and events.
The budget the authority endorsed halves the earmarks to $30,540, a move that Tourism Director Corrina Ferguson argued is needed to better follow the agency’s mission and to shift money to marketing, research, and event development.
Authority members Jeff Dixon, who is also chairman of the Pasquotank County Board of Commissioners, and Gwen Sanders, an administrator at ECSU, opposed the cuts.
Voting in favor were Tourism Development Authority Chairwoman Rhonda Twiddy and members Arthur McPherson, Maureen Donnelly, Phil Mays and Abel Sutton. Absent were members Andy Montero and City Councilor Jeannie Young.
Thursday's vote isn't final, but puts the budget on track for approval next month. A public hearing will be held before the budget can be adopted.
Ferguson advocated for the reduced earmarks last month, proposing the board halve them or eliminate them entirely. She argued then that the authority’s purpose, as defined by law and the authority's own mission statement and strategic plan, requires more focus on regional marketing and driving people to visit Elizabeth City and/or Pasquotank — including by promoting events rather than directly funding them, she noted.
In that meeting, and again on Thursday, authority board members largely agreed with her in concept, but some were leery of cutting funding for well-established groups and events. At last month’s meeting, they directed Ferguson to meet with the affected groups about the cuts.
Ferguson reported Thursday that she did so, and all of the groups supported the cuts, except for ECSU and organizers for Juneteenth. She had not met with Juneteenth organizers yet, she said.
Ferguson said she learned that none of the organizations are spending the authority’s funding on regional marketing, and argued that is not the proper use for tourism dollars meant to drive overnight visits and the spending that comes with them.
“Seventy percent of the money we gave away last year was spent to fill operational gaps; that's not what tourism dollars are,” she said. “Thirty percent was spent on marketing, but it was all in the region. Zero, zero was spent outside of our area.”
Sanders and Dixon opposed the cuts last month, and did so again on Thursday.
Sanders argued ECSU's economic impact justifies continued tourism funding, citing the visits the university draws from alumni and outside sports teams for its events. Tourism officials elsewhere in North Carolina, such as in Charlotte, support university events, such as athletic events, to draw visitors and economic activity, she said.
Ferguson responded that tourism entities might fund special events, including to provide start-up funds for new events, but should not pay for other entities' operational or recurring expenses.
ECSU received $18,000 in this year’s authority budget. That amount would drop to $9,000 for 2019-20, based on the authority’s budget the board endorsed Thursday.
Dixon said the Tourism Development Authority should fund four major groups and events, namely ECSU, the N.C. Potato Festival, Arts of the Albemarle and the Museum of the Albemarle. Communities need major events, or “building blocks,” to grow visitation, he argued.
He also suggested the authority could fund “the big four” and cut all earmarks for smaller, less impactful events.
Ferguson said she hadn't discussed cutting all funding for some groups, and didn't recommend that approach.
In supporting the reduced earmarks, Donnelly said the authority was not “abandoning” community partners. It's going to continue to collaborate with them and help with marketing, she said.
Sutton similarly stressed the authority needs to work with the community and show the benefits of better marketing.
Twiddy also said the authority will know in a year's time whether its new approach is working.
Notably, several citizens attended Thursday's meeting in apparent support of funding for ECSU. One of them, Keith Rivers, president of the Pasquotank County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the NAACP's goals include supporting investment in historically black institutions, such as ECSU.
He also cited a 2017 study from ECSU that estimated homecoming that year generated $2 million in economic benefits just from alumni spending.
Asked for comment on Wednesday, ECSU spokesman Rob Kelly-Goss wrote in an email that ECSU is “incredibly grateful” for the support it receives; he didn’t explicitly oppose a reduced earmark for ECSU.
He also wrote that the Tourism Development Authority funding ECSU receives is “earmarked for the marketing of Homecoming to alumni and the surrounding communities.”
In defending the proposed cuts, Ferguson said two affected organizations — AoA and the museum — support her approach, and wrote letters to that effect.
In a phone call Thursday afternoon, AoA Director Laurie Edwards said the cut — going from $14,000 to $7,000, if next year's authority budget is approved as-is — would be “painful” for the arts group to absorb. However, she said that she, like Ferguson, comes from a marketing background and sees value in the authority trying to better market the overall region.
“Now it's up to us to have great events” for the authority to promote, she added.