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Buncombe tourism authority excludes affordable housing in $10 million in LIFT grants

The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority discusses its inaugural LIFT Fund recipients on April 24, 2024.
Felicia Sonmez
The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority discusses its inaugural LIFT Fund recipients on April 24, 2024.

The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority on Wednesday voted to award nearly $10 million in funding to a dozen local projects as part of its inaugural Legacy Investment From Tourism (LIFT) grants – but notably, the panel steered clear of funding affordable housing.

The Authority considered 14 projects in the final round of LIFT Fund consideration. A 2022 change in state law allowed the county to use a greater portion of occupancy tax revenue for “tourism-related expenditures.”

The TDA declined two applications: a request by the City of Asheville for $30,000 in funding for 10 new Bigbelly Trash Bins, and an application by Mountain Housing Opportunities, Inc., for $1.5 million for the Star Point Affordable Apartments off Tunnel Road.

The body awarded Buncombe County’s sprawling Ferry Road development $4 million of the $6 million the county requested. But the Tourism Development Authority made clear that it was funding only the public recreation and environmental conservation parts of the project – not the sizeable affordable housing component.

After the meeting, TDA President and CEO Vic Isley declined to comment when asked whether the vote meant that affordable housing does not qualify as a tourism-related expenditure.

Wednesday’s vote was being closely watched across the state as communities grapple with the issue of funding affordable housing in tourism-heavy destinations and whether it’s legal to use occupancy tax dollars to fund such projects.

Earlier this month, the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association warned Buncombe County officials that using occupancy tax revenue to fund affordable housing could lead to a legal challenge. The state Court of Appeals recently ruled against coastal Currituck County in a lawsuit over the county’s use of tourism dollars, in a case that counties across the state have viewed as a cautionary tale.

Currituck County on Monday asked the state Supreme Court to take up the case.

Mountain Housing Opportunities President & CEO Geoffrey Barton voiced dismay at Wednesday’s decision but said his group looks forward to future opportunities to work with the TDA “to deliver much-needed affordable housing.”

“We are obviously disappointed that MHO's Star Point Apartments is not among the inaugural LIFT grant recipients,” Barton said in a statement. “Buncombe County's continued economic sustainability and cultural richness will depend on a community-wide effort to act with urgency to address our crisis of housing affordability. While lodging tax revenue is not yet an available resource, we appreciate the generosity of those philanthropic and municipal partners who are stepping up to help MHO deliver local affordable housing now.”

Buncombe County Commission Chairman Brownie Newman, who was present for Wednesday morning’s meeting, said the county commissioners “appreciate the TDA stepping up to be [a] significant partner with Buncombe County on this transformative project.”

“The Ferry Road project is meant to be a model for sustainable development,” Newman said in a statement. “It will include hundreds of new affordable homes and apartments for working families and senior citizens. Ferry Road also includes the creation of a beautiful new public park with miles of trails on the banks of the French Broad River that will be enjoyed by our whole community for generations to come.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, several members of the TDA board touted the urgent need for affordable housing in Asheville and Buncombe County. But notably, they did not directly address the question of whether the law permits the TDA to fund those projects.

Kathleen Mosher, a TDA board member and vice president of communications for The Biltmore Co., said she had “learned a lot more” about the need for affordable housing over the course of the LIFT process, including a presentation at the TDA’s annual planning session by former Mountain Housing Opportunities CEO Scott Dedman.

“I think that we have, first and foremost, a real need to partner with city and county and other community members to make sure that we have active projects being built to solve this affordable housing issue. … We need as a community to kind of come together and figure out how to solve this so that we have more housing in our urban centers,” Mosher said. “That’s where we need that development.”

Barbara Benisch, a member of the LIFT committee, declined to weigh in on whether affordable housing can be considered a "tourism-related expenditure." In an interview with BPR after the meeting, she said the committee “stuck very close to the guidelines and the statutes that guided the work that we did."

“I think we made good decisions about how to spend this money in a way that it would really support both the local community and the development of tourism,” Benisch said. “The way the law is written, it’s very clear that it is to support tourism development, so that’s really what we stuck to.”

Seventy-seven percent of all of the LIFT funds awarded Wednesday are going to city and county government projects with the remainder awarded to nonprofit organizations, according to the TDA.

The City of Asheville proposed three of the 12 projects granted LIFT funding:

  • Aston Park Tennis Center Court Rebuild Design (Awarded $40,000 of $40,000 requested)
  • Coxe Avenue Complete Street (Awarded $2,983,890 of $3 million requested)
  • Arena Capital Maintenance (Awarded $675,000 of $675,000 requested) 

One of the approved projects was proposed by Buncombe County:

  • Ferry Road Community: Affordable Housing, Conservation and Public Recreation (Awarded $4 million of $6 million requested)

The other eight projects awarded LIFT funds were submitted by nonprofit groups:

  • Asheville Museum of Science: Growing Together - Museum Repair and Expansion Plan (Awarded $250,000 of $250,000 requested)
  • Black Wall Street AVL: Black Wall Street AVL Visitor Experience Upgrade (Awarded $77,500 of $82,500 requested)
  • Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation: Improving Visitor Experiences at Craggy Gardens Year-Round (Awarded $750,000 of $750,000 requested)
  • Hood Huggers Foundation: Blue Note Junction (Phase 2) (Awarded $500,000 of $500,000 requested) 
  • Media Arts Project (MAP): Supernova Immersive Experience Project Design (Awarded $200,000 of $300,000 requested)
  • RiverLink: Gateway Park - Resurrecting a public park on Riverside Drive (Awarded $270,018 of $270,018 requested)
  • Swannanoa Valley Fine Arts League (DBA Swannanoa Valley Gallery and Studios): Expanding Visitors and Artists Experiences in Downtown Black Mountain (Awarded $92,495 of $92,495 requested)
  • University Botanical Gardens at Asheville, Inc.: Building on Our Legacy - Uplifting BGA Facilities to Better Serve Tourists and Residents (Awarded $150,000 of $150,000 requested)
Felicia Sonmez is a reporter covering growth and development for Blue Ridge Public Radio.
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