Money generated from tourism is the lifeblood of Currituck County.
That cash spigot has been turned off because of the coronavirus pandemic, however, and no one knows when those tourism dollars will start flowing again.
Only resident property owners in Currituck can access the Outer Banks portion of the county and that means there will be no visitors spending money on lodging, dining out, visiting local attractions and shopping for the foreseeable future.
Dare County has also restricted visitor access with checkpoints established at all entry points to the county.
Coupled with a statewide ban that only allows restaurants and bars to open for takeout and delivery service only, the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak are already being felt locally.
March is the usually one of the slowest months of the year on the Currituck Outer Banks based on occupancy tax receipts. The period June through October, meanwhile, accounted for almost all of the of the $12.3 million in occupancy tax revenue the county collected in 2018. The county collects a 6-percent tax on lodging, including rental homes, in Currituck.
Tourism in Currituck had a direct economic impact of $244 million in 2018, the last year that data is available, which is up over 70 percent from 2012. Tourism on the Currituck portion of the Outer Banks employs over 2,100 people with an annual payroll of $42 million. Officials said those seasonal workers, including many who clean rental properties, not only come from Currituck but also from Camden and Pasquotank counties.
But the COVID-19 outbreak could alter those numbers in a big way as the nation navigates through uncharted territory. Currituck Department of Travel and Tourism Director Tameron Kugler said her agency has suspended almost all tourism advertising in its $2.6 million budget as the COVID-19 crisis worsens.
“It’s unsettled everywhere and I don’t think we can make plans until we are confident in where we are going,” Kugler said. “The messaging we are sending out is that if you are making plans then look out to the future. We do have some paid digital (advertising), but the message is don’t come to our beach now but come to our beach in the future.”
If travel restrictions stretch into the summer the result could be a huge hit to Currituck’s budget. The county collected an estimated $13 million in local sales taxes from visitors in 2018 and that doesn’t include the $12 million the county collected in occupancy taxes in 2018. Occupancy tax revenue, however, can only be spent for tourism promotion or tourism-related activities, including hiring seasonal employees like lifeguards.
County Commissioner Owen Etheridge said Currituck is fiscally sound and should be able to weather the crisis. The county has an estimated fund balance of $20 million with an estimated unassigned fund balance of $13 million that is available for appropriation.
“Naturally, it (loss of tax revenue) will definitely have a negative impact,” Etheridge said. “We do have a pretty good reserve. We have some reserves that could hopefully make up the difference.”
Etheridge also noted Currituck has been “very careful” about spending and taking on new liabilities, so it currently has little debt.
“If this thing does go away in a reasonable amount of time, it will just be like a hiccup,’’ he said.
County officials are currently working on the county’s 2020-21 fiscal budget. Etheridge said the COVID-19 crisis will affect spending decisions not only in the budget that takes effect July 1 but for future county budgets as well.
“We have to be concerned that something like this may occur again,” he said. “We don’t want to be in a situation where we have to start cutting essential services. I have always believed that we need to be fiscally conservative but still provide a high level of services. I think we do that very well.’’