Tourism director defends agency and funds spent to market county

By Staff Reports

The Tourism Advisory Council has taken some heat recently due to some of their approved grants to local businesses and continued investment in the county.

Sandra Belcher, director of the county’s tourism department, said she finds the negativity hard to understand.

“We are investing in our county, in our businesses, in growing our businesses and attracting tourists,” she said, adding that tourism is the county’s multi-million-dollar resource.

But Belcher said many may not realize what tourism actually looks like.

For instance, when an out-of-towner visits Jack’s Creek Covered Bridge in Woolwine and stops for gas and lunch at Howell’s Grocery, that’s tourism, she said, adding that traveler helped stimulate the local economy.

Those visiting family in the area also visit local stores for food, fuel and other items, Belcher said, adding that also is tourism.

In 2017, visitors like those and others generated $27,909,207 in local sales of food, gas, recreation and lodging; supported 278 jobs in the county, and paid $814,320 in local taxes. Overnighters who stay in Patrick County also pay a 5 percent lodging tax (also called a transient occupancy tax) per night.

They come to experience the things that make Patrick County special, Belcher said, and added the county’s landscape defines its tourism products, from scenic views for photography to scenic byways for driving or bike riding.

Tourists are attracted attractions like the Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, I.C. DeHart Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Lovers Leap, Meadows of Dan Village, Fairy Stone State Park and its Fairy Stone Trail and Philpott Lake, with its wide range of attractions conspire to make both quaint and contemporary experiences, Belcher said.

Tourists visit eateries and shops that include the Crooked Road Café, Howell’s Grocery Store, Honduras Coffee Shop, Mattie B’s, Claudville Cafe, Dry Pond Cafe and the Stanburn and Villa Appalachia wineries.

Other local treasures like Jack’s Creek Covered Bridge, J.E.B Stuart’s birthplace, and the Patrick County Museum also attract visitors, Belcher said.

The lodging tax funds generated by those visitors are dedicated by state law to the “marketing of tourism or initiatives that attract travelers to the locality, increase occupancy at lodging properties, and generate revenues in the locality,” Belcher said.

“And they are carefully spent,” she said, adding that about 80 percent of the lodging taxes collected are used to market the county through magazine and online ads and content.

The Tourism Department selects regional publications that are most likely to reach potential tourists to the area, such as the Blue Ridge Parkway Directory and Travel Planner, Blue Ridge Outdoors (print and digital) with a monthly circulation of 105,000 issues and 341,250 readers; and Blue Ridge Country magazine, which reaches more than 210,000 readers through its print and digital channels, Belcher said.

Lodging tax funds also are used to pay for sponsorships and allocated to small businesses and festivals that incentivize tourism. The remaining 20 percent is used for administrative purposes.

Tourism related expenses are made only if lodging tax funds are available, Belcher said, and added that while the county’s coffers benefit from tourism, real estate and personal property revenues in the general fund are not spent to market the county,

The more than $500,000 in the tourism budget for June 30, 2019 to July 1, 2020 and listed on the county’s government website includes the carry-over amount for the current fiscal year plus anticipated revenues for the upcoming fiscal year.

In fiscal ’19 – the current fiscal year, the Patrick County Transient Occupancy Tax has generated $344,353.17, including interest, Belcher said.

In addition, the Patrick County Tourism Department received $10,000 from the Virginia Tourism Commission to help promote its 50 Years of Love campaign this summer. The grant was won through the combined efforts of the tourism department, tourism related businesses and events coordinators in the county, according to Belcher.

“Of course, the goal is to help Patrick County win an even larger share of the state’s tourism income, and that is a big target,” Belcher said, adding that in 2017 and according to the most recent state tourism data available, the county garnered nearly $28 million from tourists’ purchases of gas, food, recreation and lodging, the state took in $25 billion, supported 232,000 jobs and $1.73 billion in state and local taxes.



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