This story has been updated.
ASHEVILLE – Officials with a public tourism board have made the city an official sponsor of one of the world’s biggest tennis tournaments, at the cost of $1.3 million in local tax dollars.
Asheville’s name is on display at the U.S. Open in New York City along with other sponsors such as ESPN. One of the top four Grand Slam events including Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the French Open, interest in the U.S. tournament has surged this year with the upcoming retirement of groundbreaking American player Serena Williams.
The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, which has a $46 million budget paid for by hotel tax dollars and uses the money to increase hotel business and overall tourism, had announced the deal Aug. 2.
In a news release, the TDA pointed to what it said was the success of Asheville’s Billie Jean King Cup matches between the U.S. and Ukraine in April, but did not give details of the U.S. Open sponsorship costs or potential benefits. Prior to that tournament, in 2018, Serena Williams and her sister Venus Williams played in Asheville for the first round of the Fed Cup.
On Aug. 30 TDA President and CEO Vic Isley at first declined to answer questions about the deal, saying the information would be available at an Aug. 31 TDA board meeting, to be held at 9 a.m. at the Center for Craft at 67 Broadway St. downtown.
But Isley later that day came back with details, such as cost and where potential tourists would come from: New York, Washington, Las Vegas and other markets.
“Explore Asheville is proud to elevate our relationship with the USTA and Asheville’s reputation as a creative, vibrant community for leisure travel, business groups and sports events,” she said.
Isley said the $1.3 million one-year deal was “in line with other national media buys such as Facebook” and was 16% over what the TDA said was direct spending attributed to the Billie Jean Cup.
Those matches generated $8 million for Asheville businesses and “created opportunities for community engagement,” the organization said.
The group said the events also helped bring in more than $225,000 in donations for Ukraine.
Prior to coming to the Buncombe TDA, Isley worked for the Bermuda Tourism Authority. According to the publication NS Business, that North Atlantic island’s tourism organization paid $500,000 in 2019 to be a sponsor of the U.S. Open. In an email Isley said that amount was not correct and linked to a news release on that sponsorship. But that announcement provided no cost.
The U.S. Tennis Association is a partner in the deal, though it is not clear what financial obligations it will have.
The expenditure faced criticism from residents who said tax dollars do not need to be spent on increasing tourism in the face of other dire public needs, including lack of housing.
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Beth Pedrotti, manager of the downtown Wall Street Market convenience store, said at some point there would be “blowback” from tourists who came to Asheville after seeing the many advertisements and the city’s name in top 10 lists.
“They get here and literally every corner smells like a port-a-potty and every doorway is filled with garbage and people,” said Pedrotti, who moved to Asheville in 1993 but recently said she moved to Candler because of high housing costs.
Recent state legislation adjusted the amount of the TDA budget that must go directly to advertising, reducing it from 75% to 66%. The remainder goes to projects meant to increase tourism, but can also have public benefits such as greenways and sports fields.
Officially called an “occupancy tax,” the funding has come historically from hotels. More recently other lodging facilities such as short-term vacation rentals are providing an increasing portion of the TDA budget.
More: Answer Man: TDA promoting itself in ad? Merrimon Avenue sign missing a piece?
More: Less money for Buncombe tourism advertising after occupancy tax bill passes NC Legislature
Pedrotti called the reduction in the marketing portion a “baby step” but said it would be better to abolish the TDA altogether.
“Asheville does not need tourism development. We are developed,” she said.
But TDA member Andrew Celwyn, often the lone member of the body to criticize the marketing spending, called such sponsorships by the TDA’s marketing arm, Explore Asheville, very effective.
“I think that the folks at Explore Asheville and the marketing agencies who they work with them are pretty savvy,” said Celwyn, owner of the downtown herb and tea store Herbiary.
“They are spending money that is bringing people to Asheville. They do a good job with that, and I want to give them credit when they’re doing a good job,” he said.
Some, such as Ben Williamson, an organizer for the rural worker activist group Down Home North Carolina, criticized spending money in the largely white sport of tennis, saying it goes against the TDA’s stated “push toward diversity and attracting tourists of various socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.”
But Celwyn said this tournament could be different with more people of color tuning in to watch Williams, one of the sport’s most notable Black players.
“I think it is great for Explore Asheville’s mission where they are trying to reach more underrepresented communities.”
Some details about the deal
More details, according to Isley:
- The Sept. 7 evening session will be designated “Asheville Night” and include additional promotion for the Asheville community in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
- Explore Asheville is sponsoring Kiran Kudva and Jia Hind, two Junior Asheville Tennis Association members, to travel to NYC and escort the coin tosser on-court and attend the match.
- Kiran, 13, participated in the Champions Junior Tennis Camp this past June and was a flag carrier at the Opening Ceremonies of the 90th Annual Asheville Open. Kiran was part of the first ball for the dedication of the Court One for Lewis Issac at Aston Park.
- Jia is 17 years old and a junior board member of the Asheville Tennis Association. She has been a volunteer for all ATA Community Outreach programs and helped recruit other volunteers. She serves on the ATA’s Diversity, Equity and Belonging Committee.
- Explore Asheville and the Asheville Tennis Association will co-host a Sept. 7 Asheville viewing party for their respective partners and members at the Funkatorium.
- Explore Asheville sales and marketing team members will work with “travel and lifestyle media members” in Arthur Ashe Stadium Sept. 7, followed by meeting and event planner clients on Sept. 8.
Which tourists targeted?
Some of the marketing information provided by the TDA:
TV Coverage: more than 100 hours of live coverage in the U.S., Canada, UK and throughout the world. Top 10 U.S. markets for the 2021 US Open, based on market rating were:
- New York
- Washington, DC
- Las Vegas
- Los Angeles
- San Diego
Live Event: 700,000 fans in two weeks at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center; Average of seven hours on-site for attendees.
Balanced female/male split (women make primary travel decisions).
Ethnic breakdown based on on-site surveys : Caucasian: 64%, Asian American/Asian: 14%, African American/African: 13%, Hispanic: 9%.
81% fans domestic; 56% are tri-state residents.
Household incomes of $182,000 and average age of 42.
82% with college degree.
Joel Burgess has lived in WNC for more than 20 years, covering politics, government and other news. He’s written award-winning stories on topics ranging from gerrymandering to police use of force. Got a tip? Contact Burgess at firstname.lastname@example.org, 828-713-1095 or on Twitter @AVLreporter. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.
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