Opportunities for growth

Budget committee approves Visitors Bureau move to buy option on adjacent 10 acres

By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

The Blount County Budget Committee on Monday night, April 9, authorized the Smoky Mountain Convention and Visitor’s Bureau to spend $100,000 of bureau money to buy a two-year option on 10 acres adjoining their Townsend Visitors Center property.

Brothers John and Joe Myers of Townsend own the 10-acre meadow beside the visitor’s center. The property is often used for parking during festivals at the facility.

According to Herb Handly, the budget committee authorized the dollars to be transferred from the visitor’s center budget to put on an option. "Obviously we’ll have to get final approval from the county commission," he said.

Handly said there are two fund balances related to the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau - one for the visitor’s center in Townsend and the welcome center at the Chamber of Commerce and one to handle advertising Blount County as a tourist destination. "These are dollars out of the visitor center fund balance," he said.

"These are dollars that have been collected through hotel/motel taxes of our visitors. Any dollars the bureau has comes from people who live somewhere else," Handly said. "We never ask for money out of the general fund or from our
taxpayers. We don’t take from general fund."

Handly said the money generated from hotel/motel taxes is held and committed to the visitor’s center and marketing budget for the bureau, but they are under the scrutiny of the county commission, and the commission has oversight.

"They can’t use those dollars for anything else but for the visitor’s bureau. These dollars are committed through a special act that has to be used for the visitor bureau, either promotions or taking care of the business of bureau," Handly said.

Handly said the $100,000 option keeps the property off the market for 24 months. "At the end of 24 months, we have the option of purchasing the property or not. If we do purchase the property, the dollars we’ve spent for the option goes toward the purchase price," he said.

The fair market price and the price the visitor’s center has agreed to is approximately $1.4 million for the 10 acres. The price was based on advice from those who are in the real estate business who have indicated that it is a fair market price, Handly said.

Beside the fact that the property adjoins the visitor’s center and is used for parking, the land is valuable because it includes about four and half acreage of frontage on East Lamar Alexander Parkway with the remaining acreage behind.

Handly said the immediate need for buying the land option is parking for events at the facility. The property is used for the Heritage Festival and Old Timers Day in the fall and the Townsend in the Smokies Spring Festival. These events attract 40,000 people or more, Handly said.

The bureau is also adding two new festivals: the Second Annual Winter Heritage Festival in February and the Smoky Mountains Pottery Festival in June.

Handly said the pottery festival may attract another 8,000 visitors in the early stages. "It is going to be a pottery festival which will be a festival much different from anything we’ve done," he said. "It’s a little more upscale. Our intentions are to bring potters from throughout the Southeastern United States to do a pottery fest here."

The event will be a combination of demonstrations of hand-thrown pottery, kiln-drying methods and displays and sales of hand-thrown pottery.

Handly estimated the events held at the visitor’s center or sponsored by the center create about 7,600 room nights on an annual basis in Townsend motels, hotels and cabins. "If you look at the economic impact that has in the Townsend community, it’s about approximately half a million dollars in economic impact as a result of specific events and festivals we do," he said.

Handly said not having the adjacent meadow for parking is critical. "If we didn’t have space to do that, it would obviously impact these events and diminish the economic impact resulting from these events," he said.

Handly said the hotel/motel tax, which is an indicator of growth, has grown at about 6 percent each year for last 10
years. "If we were to look at the next 10 years, if we grow at the same rate, our ability to handle the numbers of people is going to be challenging for our visitor’s center here in Townsend," he said.

In 2006, about 190,000 people visited the visitor’s center in Townsend. "If that grows at 5 or 6 percent each year for next five or 10 years, you can imagine the number of people we’ll be serving," he said.

Handly said the visitor’s center is also a centralized place in Townsend for both community events for area residents as well as a location for visitors to get information.

"We need to keep those needs in mind in terms of the community," he said.

Handly said that regardless of what plans develop for the visitor’s center, the property will not decrease in value. "It will definitely increase in value. If we determine 10 years from now we don’t need the property, it could be sold for much more than what it was bought for. It’s a no-risk kind of project," he said.

The measure will go before the full commission during the April 19 meeting. Afterwards the bureau can buy the option and begin planning how it will raise the money to pay the remainder of the $1.4 million asking price. "It is our plan we will be seeking funding from other sources, but not from the county government," Handly said. "We may be looking for state-funding and grant opportunities. We really haven’t gotten into what opportunities there are."

The visitor’s center building was built in 1989. It was expanded in 1994.

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