Page County allocates TOT funds among tourism-related events, efforts

Page News and Courier

LURAY, June 7 ― With the county's Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) revenue projected to reach an all-time high in fiscal 2017, supervisors saw funding requests climb to new heights last Tuesday, with more than two dozen groups vying for the lodging tax dollars.

The Page County Board of Supervisors spent the better part of last week's three-hour meeting mulling over requests totaling nearly $920,000 ― about $220,000 more than the $700,000 projected to be generated in the coming fiscal year through the county's TOT. The “lodging tax” represents 5 percent of the total amount paid for room, cabin and campground rentals outside of a town limit in Page County.

While 2 percent of the TOT dollars collected must remain in the county's general fund, the remaining amount must be designated for “marketing of tourism or initiatives that … attract travelers to the locality, increase occupancy at lodging properties and generate tourism revenues in the locality,” according to Virginia Code.

As tourism continues to grow in Page County ― visitors to Page in 2014 spent $63.6 million, up 2.7 percent from the previous year, according to the most recent statistics by the Virginia Tourism Corp. ― so does the county's TOT fund.

When fiscal 2015 ended last June, TOT funds totaled $730,431 ― $110,431 more than the year's $620,000 projection. In fiscal 2016, the county adopted a TOT projection of $650,000, though that number will likely increase when the fiscal year ends on June 30.

Each year, the county allocates funding to more than a dozen groups that use the funds to market events and spur tourism, including festivals, performing arts and recreation. Minus the 2-percent earmarked for the county's general fund ― $280,000 in fiscal 2017 ― the bulk of TOT dollars are handed over to the Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber received $275,000 in fiscal 2016. Supervisors approved the same contribution for the coming fiscal year.

According to Virginia Code, a locality collecting TOT must consult with a local tourism industry organization, which is fulfilled in Page by the Chamber's Tourism Council. Last year, the local chamber spent $320,857 in county-wide tourism efforts, according to chamber president Gina Hilliard.

Other groups and organizations granted TOT dollars for fiscal 2017 include the Page Valley Artisan Trail, Fields of Gold, the Performing Arts Center of Luray, Trackside Theater, the Luray VFW's Veterans Bluegrass Festival, the Shriner's Bluegrass in the Blue Ridge event and the Luray Park Association, which oversees the Luray Singing Tower.

The county's three towns, as well as organizations within the towns, also submitted TOT requests for various events and projects. Instead of earmarking funds for specific requests, however, supervisors allocated $10,000 to each of the towns of Luray, Stanley and Shenandoah.

The lump sums were in an effort to be “fair,” said Dist. 1 Supervisor Keith Guzy, although Guzy recommended that an additional $1,000 be allocated to the Town of Luray's Youth Trout Derby, which supervisors approved. The event did not request funding for fiscal 2017, according to a tally sheet included with Tuesday night's meeting agenda.

Shenandoah's allocation by supervisors grouped in the Shenandoah Heritage Association. The nonprofit association often works in coordination with the town, but is a separate entity that heads up Shenandoah's annual Memorial Day Festival and Parade, as well as oversees the historic Stevens Cottage. In the current fiscal year, said Shenandoah's Assistant Town Manager Juanita Roudabush, the town and the heritage association each received $5,000 in TOT funds.

The town spent that and more, said Roudabush, in marketing efforts, including advertisements in Massanutten-area publications and other publications in the Shenandoah Valley, brochures, post cards and welcome booths during town events. The heritage association spent the bulk of its $5,000 advertising its Memorial Day celebration, including 5,000 brochures, as well as posters and print ads.

Supervisors granted a $10,000 request ― the same as the current fiscal year ― by the Luray Triathlon. The annual two-day event at Lake Arrowhead, said supervisors, attracts “more visitors” than any other county event ― about 1,200 participants, in addition to spectators.

Supervisors gave an additional $2,000 to the triathlon's new spinoff event at the lake, “Swim Fest,” which launches this Saturday.

Page Valley Cycling was shot down for funding. The organization hosts multiple events throughout the county each year, including the Tour of Page County Stage Race, the Shenandoah Time Trial, the Shenandoah Speedway Criterium, the Page Valley Road Race and the Luray Caverns CX bicycle races.

Noting that several citizens had complained about race participants, Dist. 4 Supervisor Larry Foltz suggested that the slate of events not receive funding in the coming fiscal year.

According to Page Valley Cycling founder Chris Gould, 2015 events collectively drew about 1,900 cyclists, family and friends, generating more than $220,000 in revenue on food, merchandise and lodging. Those numbers are based on post-race surveys conducted by the organization.

Of those surveyed, 90 percent said they would return to Page County for reasons other than a bike race.

Gould had requested $7,000 in fiscal 2017 ― up from the $5,000 allocated by the county in fiscal 2016.

A $10,000 request by the Luray Downtown Initiative was also shot down. The nonprofit group hoped to use the funds in a public-private partnership that would establish free WiFi in the historic district. The wireless service could be advertised ― and eventually overseen ― by downtown business owners and merchants as an incentive to draw visitors to Main Street shops, eateries and attractions, as well as keep them there longer.

The second-highest TOT-seeker, the Page County Cabin Owners Association, requested $50,000 in its effort to launch the new group.

“The county can realize much more return if we have a Page County Cabin Owners Association ― and if it's funded to the extent that we're asking,” said the group's co-founder and cabin owner J.D. Cave.

Cave continued, noting that cabin owners contribute the bulk of the TOT fund ― more than $329,000, according to Supervisors' Chairman Johnny Woodward.

As chief drivers of the revenue, said Cave, local cabin owners should have a bigger say in how the funds are spent. The association, said co-founder Randy Howan, planned to use the bulk of its $50,000 request for a professional marketing video that would be filmed by a state-of-the-art drone. The association additionally hopes to create a website listing all cabin association members, similarly to how the Luray-Page Chamber currently lists cabin-owning members on its website.

Noting that the association in some ways would be duplicating the Chamber's efforts, Guzy encouraged the two organizations to “work together.” The two groups have already held a joint meeting, said Cave, adding that both he and Howan are currently Chamber members.

Supervisors opted against the funding request, instead asking the association to return later, once the group has been better established.

Other groups shot down for funding include a $20,000 request from the Page County Heritage Association to install the historic cupola at Hamburg. The dome was salvaged from the 1881 Old Schoolhouse and former county office building before it was demolished. Luray Cavemen Baseball and the Shenandoah Valley Small Business Development Center also requested funding but were turned down. Supervisors, however, allocated $5,000 to the business development center from its general fund to aid the group's efforts to establish a permanent presence in Page.

In total, supervisors allocated $668,770 of fiscal 2017's $700,000-projection, leaving $31,230 to be divvied out at a later time.

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