Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Emergency meeting brings together Greater Williamsburg leaders to plan for tourism bill

Local leaders gathered Monday morning in the Stryker Center to discuss funding for area tourism. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
Leaders from Williamsburg and James City and York counties gathered Monday in the Stryker Center in Williamsburg to discuss funding for area tourism. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

With budget season in full swing, leaders from the Greater Williamsburg’s localities sat down Monday to discuss a regional tourism marketing plan.

Elected representatives, administrators and legal counsel from the City of Williamsburg and York and James City counties met in the Stryker Center Monday morning to create a plan for the use of funds brought in from Senate Bill 942 that are earmarked for promoting the area’s tourism.

“It’s a great first step on regional cooperation toward increased investment in tourism promotion and hopefully in tourism product infrastructure,” Williamsburg Mayor Paul Freiling said.

The point of the meeting was to iron out details of the bill’s implementation as the three local governments work through budget season. The meeting itself was labeled an emergency meeting, as some of Williamsburg’s City Council members expressed reservations at passing a budget at its work session last week.

The city would have to repeal the increase in funding for its Tourism Development Fund for the bill to take effect, including ordinances to raise the lodging and meals tax and the creation of an admission tax to tourist destinations. As a result, York and James City Counties have waited on the city in passing their own budgets.

The bill, submitted by state Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City County, will raise the state sales tax in the City of Williamsburg and James City and York counties by 1 percentage point.  Half of the revenue from the increase would be directed to and managed by the Tourism Council of Greater Williamsburg, a new committee in the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance. The Tourism Council will be composed of representatives from each locality and regional stakeholders.

The other half of the revenue would be given directly back to the localities themselves.

It also made the $2 tax for nightly stays in hotels motels and bed and breakfasts optional for both York and James City counties but mandatory for the city, Freiling said.

Maintaining the sources of tax revenue each government had accounted for when planning the upcoming year’s budget was a sticking point for the counties, who said they will continue to collect the $2 occupancy tax.

“The city needed some confidence that the counties will keep that $2 tax” for nightly rentals, York County Supervisor Jeff Wassmer said. “The counties needed some reassurance that the city is going to take the action that they need [to repeal TDF funding]. Time is of the essence. We can’t wait until December to take a vote.”

City Council will review a proposal for repealing the TDF funding and for passing a budget at its May 10 meeting, thus allowing the Senate bill to go into effect. The TDF increases are scheduled for July 1, unless repealed by Council.

However, there remain several points that need to be finalized, including how exactly the funds will be used, how staff will be hired and meetings will be conducted, as well as the future of the Williamsburg Area Destination Marketing Committee, which may be supplanted by the Tourism Council of Greater Williamsburg.

Representatives also agreed that the net impact of the funds on tourism would need to be studied. Ideas included tracking changes in the number of hotel room nights booked, restaurant income and admission totals for area tourist destinations.

Questions lingered as to the exact purpose of the funds – whether they should be used purely for marketing the area to potential tourists, or for the creation of tourism infrastructure and attractions to lure tourists to the area.

“I don’t think we can do the same things we’ve always done,” Wassmer said. “If we show that forethought of new things that will be coming to the area it will create that excitement,” to bring in visitors.

James City County was represented by Supervisors Ruth Larson and Michael Hipple, interim County Administrator Bill Porter and County Attorney Adam Kinsman. Supervisors Sheila Noll and Jeff Wassmer, County Administrator Neil Morgan and County Attorney James Barnett represented York County. Mayor Paul Freiling, Vice Mayor Scott Foster, City Manager Marvin Collins and City Attorney Christina Shelton were present on the city’s behalf.

“I’m very encouraged by everything I heard from our county colleagues as to how their objectives seem to mesh perfectly with ours,” Freiling said.

Correction: The article initially reported the $2 occupancy tax would be done away with by Senate Bill 942 in all three localities, rather than made optional in York and James City Counties and mandatory in Williamsburg.

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