Tourism’s booming and looming presence over time
by Rob Neufeld
PHOTO CAPTION: Bus tours were a focus of tourism funding in Asheville. From 1950-1968, White Transportation, whose vehicle and driver are pictured here, provided the city its transportation services. Citizen-Times file photo.
July 21, 1983 is a historic date. That’s when the N.C. General Assembly first allowed Buncombe County to collect a hotel occupancy tax, create a tourism development authority and use the money to advertise regional tourism.
Pigeon Forge was cited as the shining example of municipal self-promotion.
The page in the Citizen-Times that reported the legislative go-ahead also featured an article about the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild’s 36th annual fair in the Civic Center; and a column by Bob Terrell that conveyed the dismay of Vanderbilt Apartments residents over the cigarette butts, smashed paper cups and crumpled bags that littered the sidewalk in front of the vacant Ivey's store, formerly the 1920s Bon Marche building.
The Vanderbilt Apartments for the elderly—a government-funded project—had once been the George Vanderbilt Hotel, a 1920s showpiece built by Citizens Hotel Corporation to match Edwin Wiley's Grove's nearby Battery Park Hotel. The Vanderbilt had been stripped of its façade in 1969 to meet federal standards for un-showiness. Then, in 1999, Public Interest Projects restored some of the decoration while engaged in also stabilizing the crumbling exterior.
In its heyday, the hotel had been familiar to F. Scott Fitzgerald when he’d stayed downtown.
Fitzgerald had enshrined Asheville’s Golden Age when, in his novel, “The Great Gatsby,” he had Nick Carroway, his narrator, spot Jordan Baker and remark, “I knew now why her face was familiar—its pleasing contemptuous expression had looked out at me from many rotogravure pictures of the sporting life at Asheville and Hot Springs and Palm Beach.”
Fitzgerald had also acted as a prophet of the Crash when, according to Anthony Buttitta in his memoir, “After the Good Gay Times,” he’d declaimed to Buttitta, “The Boom spawned the Bust…bringing in its wake misery, economic chaos, and a plague on everything spiritual.”
In the wake of the plunge, Asheville’s Sinking Fund Commission decided, in 1936, to pay off Asheville’s Depression debt over a period of 40 years, for that’s how long Moses had wandered in the desert.
Thus, the promised land of fruitfulness again became available to Asheville in 1976. Did the enthusiasm include a study of what had gone wrong in 1930? Or should such a nagging concern be swept aside because, for investors and planners, there’s only one path to overflowing prosperity in the “Paris of the South,” and it’s not farms and it’s not factories?
That phrase, “Paris of the South,” oft cited as Asheville’s nickname, is not one I can find in any literature before 1990. “Land of the Sky,” a more outdoorsy moniker, was the big byword since the 1890s.
In 1886, a pamphlet had touted the area as “Nature’s Trundle-Bed of Recuperation.” But then, as the city cleaned up, it viewed disease—namely, tuberculosis—as a deterrent to tourism, and the sanatoria were phased out.
Asheville’s Board of Trade tried out the slogan, “Where the Snow-Birds Nest” in 1899; and in 1924 the Chamber of Commerce broadened that to “Center of the Beautiful Blue Ridge Playground.”
Mountains were the selling point more than markets. In 1960, the Asheville Tourist Association invented the phrase, “Gateway to the Smokies” (which, I admit, attracted me). Even as late as 2000, the Buncombe County Tourism Authority came up with, “Altitude Affects Attitude.”
The golden goose
Tim Reid reported in the Citizen-Times on Aug. 26, 2001 that John Winkenwerder, a third-generation Asheville hotel owner, had said that diverting the room tax revenue away from tourism would be “like killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”
The tax had just been raised from 3 to 4% (it’s now 6), and City Council members wanted to use some of the money to renovate the Civic Center.
The idea didn’t fly. It went against the fundamental idea of the occupancy tax, which hotel owners had at first opposed because, Winkenwerder explained, they feared that “no matter how good a (tax) program you put together, in the long run the political powers will corrupt and ruin” it.
State Rep. Martin Nesbitt, after a few years of debate, managed to pass the tax authorization by promising hotel owners control over expenditures.
In its first year, the Tourism Development Authority garnered $59,000 and put chunks of its small pie toward ads for bus tours and conventions sites. Since then, the revenue has increased 30-fold to $17.5 million.
As hinted by the Vanderbilt tenants, Asheville had been in bad shape in 1983. Convention advocates had to promote hotels located outside of downtown. It wouldn’t be until 1985 that the Bon Marche building would be converted to Haywood Park Hotel.
By the 1990s, downtown Asheville began to claim a renaissance, which by 2010 seemed to have few limits.
A history of stress
In the 1920s, the stresses of such development were in some ways similar to those of today—escalating property values and an influx of second-home buyers, for instance—and in some ways different. Saloons, stray dogs, and free-ranging livestock had come under attack a century ago.
The major stress, as it turned out, had been the stretch of over-investment. And yet, even after the crash, local visionaries were still putting their chips on tourism with faith in it as an economic savior.
Plans for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway went forward; and the Biltmore Estate opened to tourists.
“Any city it was thought, could host industry,” Richard Starnes writes in his 2005 book, “Creating the Land of the Sky,” “but few played host to hundreds of thousands of visitors year after year.”
Has tourism been given a surer footing in 2017 than in 1925 (that’s when Asheville had increased property taxes to support advertising)?
Is tourism creating stresses that could become harmful, even to tourism?
In the 1920s, big industries often provided housing to its workers (with mixed results, admittedly). How has the tourism industry done that for employees whose wages make it hard for them to get affordable housing? Might the hotel room tax be put toward housing?
The projects that the TDA now supports must demonstrate that they will increase hotel stays. Would a stable and happy workforce, living in good homes near their places of work, benefit hoteliers and visitors?
Tourism today has put stresses on neighborhoods, which want to maintain their charm; as well as on people wanting to tap into the tourist economy by renting homes and apartments to vacationers. Are those concerns mutually exclusive?
Do vacation rentals provide desirable alternatives to hotels, and do they compete with them?
In the spring of 1937, Asheville native Max Whitson, living in Florida, rented out his Oteen cabin to Thomas Wolfe, who had come home again, at least physically.
“Tom heard I had a cabin up near Recreation Park and wanted to rent it for the summer,” Whitson recalled in 1971. “I took him up there and he was delighted with the place. ‘If I can’t write here,’ he remarked, ‘I can’t write anywhere.’”
Rob Neufeld writes the weekly “Visiting Our Past” column for the Citizen-Times. He is the author of books on history and literature, and manages the WNC book and heritage website, “The Read on WNC.” Follow him on Twitter @WNC_chronicler; email him at RNeufeld@charter.net.