Tourism Council members split on question of tourism development

Staff writer

Should the Tourism Council, which has a mandate to market the region to overnight tourists, concern itself with building attractions to give those tourists something to do once they get here?

That’s a question on the minds of Tourism Council members, who have mixed feelings on the idea.

Tourism development for the Historic Triangle has its seed money in the form of a $1.6 million development fund, which the Tourism Council created in January. Exactly how the fund would be used hasn’t been determined yet, nor the exact amount of money available, which depends on in-process, end-of-year bookkeeping on the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance’s part.

Generally, the fund would be earmarked for projects that improve the region’s tourism infrastructure. Most officials agree that includes development of sports venues and facilities, with some officials suggesting grants or money for public-private partnerships could fall under the same heading.

While there’s a general consensus on what tourism development is, there’s more debate around whether the Tourism Council should be the one to do it.

“It seems like we’re creating a fund that should really go to advertising,” said Mickey Chohany, of the Williamsburg Area Restaurant Association, at the Tourism Council’s February meeting.

Others spoke in support of Chohany, and still others pushed backed, both at the meeting and in subsequent interviews.

“Certainly the development fund would go to something that would increase tourism here,” said Ruth Larson, Tourism Council member and James City County supervisor, at the February meeting. “Whatever it would be, it would be something that would draw more overnights to the area.”

The issue represents a crossroads for the Tourism Council.

Critics of the tourism development fund think such an effort is outside the scope of the Tourism Council’s mission. Supporters think tourism development accomplishes the same objective as traditional marketing — getting people to visit with something new.

“I would strongly urge that we keep focused on messaging and not necessarily be the product development,” Chohany said.

Mitchell Reiss, Colonial Williamsburg president and CEO and Tourism Council member, echoed Chohany’s sentiment while also noting the importance of infrastructure at the meeting.

“Intellectually, I think they’re two separate issues. There’s promotion and there’s capital investment,” he said.

“The funds are intended for marketing,” Reiss said. “We can have a capital investment discussion, and we probably should at some point.”

To which Doug Pons, a Tourism Council member and Williamsburg’s vice mayor, replied that the existence of the fund provides the foundation for such discussions.

SB 942 requires localities to continue their allocations of funding to the alliance, which oversees the Tourism Council. This annual funding predates SB 942.

Williamsburg and York County have provided $800,000 and $438,600, respectively, as part of their fiscal year 2019 budgets. James City County has paid the alliance $418,920 as of Dec. 31 as part of its fiscal year 2019 budget.

The majority of those funds will go to the Tourism Council side of the alliance, and given the localities’ interest in tourism development, representatives of the localities seem keen on the idea that tax money go toward tourism development.

Tourism development, specifically in terms of new sports facilities, is a win for tourists and locals alike, said Ron Kirkland, executive director of the Williamsburg Hotel and Motel Association and an alternate member of the Tourism Council.

Indoor fields eliminate weather’s impact on tournaments, and sports fields could also be used by locals. A large complex could also feature conference or concert space, and such a project could be an add-on to existing facilities, such as those at at Warhill Sports Complex.

If a family comes into town for a weekend volleyball tournament, they will likely spend some of time at places such as Busch Gardens or consider the area as a place to vacation in the future, Kirkland said.

For inspiration, Kirkland pointed to the Rocky Mount Event Center in Rocky Mount, N.C. The 165,000-square-foot facility has eight basketball courts, conference space and can be used as an event venue that can seat thousands of people. Rocky Mount is a city with an estimated population of 54,523, according to 2017 census data.

In comparison, Williamsburg Indoor Sports Complex, the indoor facility at Warhill Sports Complex, is 100,000 square feet. The city’s Quarterpath Recreation Center is 35,000 square feet.

WISC has an indoor turf field, a fitness center and other features, the complex’s website states. Quarterpath Recreation Center has an 18,000-square-foot gym, two meeting rooms and a multi-purpose room of 1,900 square feet, among other features, according to its website.

“I see that being a big winner,” Kirkland said of a large sports complex.

While individual destinations might unveil a new ride or exhibition, the lack of a new regional attraction is a gaping hole in the Historic Triangle’s offerings. And the development of new attractions at one or two destinations isn’t a substitute, said Neal Chalkley, president of the Williamsburg Hotel and Motel Association and Tourism Council member.

“We’re not necessarily saying it might not be enough. We’re saying it hasn’t been enough,” he said. “The product is tourism … you need to continue to invest in ourselves, invest in our community and invest back in the infrastructure in order to continue to grow.”

While some members of the Tourism Council lean one way or the other on the fund, others are adopting a wait-and-see approach.

“The vote the board took simply established the fund. There’s still a lot more work and discussion ahead,” Busch Gardens and Water Country USA president Kevin Lembke said in an emailed statement.

Kym Hall, superintendent of the Colonial National Historical Park, said use of the fund should be driven by research.

“It seems to me that any of those decisions would ideally be driven by data,” she said at the February meeting.

“I think everyone agrees that it is important to keep our tourism product fresh and engaging, but there are no doubt differing ideas about what that means. The Tourism Council provides the opportunity to work that through and hopefully arrive at a consensus on how to move forward,” Jeanne Zeidler, chairwoman of the alliance’s board of directors, said in an email.

Spokeswomen for Rita McClenny, of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, and Philip Emerson, of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, said both officials were unavailable for comment.

“It’s a wide range of things, but in my mind it can be infrastructure,” said Jeff Wassmer, Tourism Council chairman and York County supervisor, of tourism development.

“The municipalities are very interested in infrastructure. For us, that’s a priority,” he said, adding that a sports complex alone isn’t a solution, rather part of a broader strategy for attracting tourists.

And despite some disagreement, it seems unlikely the debate will tear the Tourism Council asunder, Wassmer said.

“This is a whole new process,” he said. “I think we’ll get to a compromise.”

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, jojacobs@vagazette.com, @jajacobs_

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