LEWISBURG — Tourism continues to be a bright spot in Greenbrier County’s economy.
The county’s Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) is heartened by national headlines that do not focus on a natural disaster, but that single out Lewisburg as a desired small town to visit and all of Greenbrier County as a “top trending destination.”
In addition, according to the CVB’s annual report for 2018-19, a number of county businesses reliant on tourism have earned recognition for being among the “best” in their fields. Among those businesses is Smooth Ambler Spirits, named Best Craft Whiskey Distillery by USA Today and Best Distillery in WV Living’s “Best of West Virginia” competition. Others recognized on a national or regional level include Hawk Knob Hard Cider & Mead, The Greenbrier, Greenbrier Valley Theatre, Prime 44 West, General Lewis Inn and Greenbrier River Trail.
The CVB itself received two awards from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) for its 2019 work — the WV PRSA Crystal Award for the Greenbrier County CVB Annual Report and the WV PRSA Honorable Mention for the Greenbrier Valley Visitors Guide.
“There’s never been a more exciting time to be a part of the tourism industry here in Greenbrier County,” CVB executive director Kara D. Dense said in the annual report. “From the Blueprint Communities designation in the Meadow River Valley to new business development in White Sulphur Springs, Greenbrier County continues to flourish as a destination that couples and families seek out.”
One of the year’s highlights, Dense told the Greenbrier County Commission at an October meeting, was the launch of a collaborative tourism market study that is nearly ready to be rolled out for stakeholders.
Streetsense, a research firm based in Washington, D.C., is leading the study, which is funded by four Greenbrier County entities — the CVB, The Greenbrier resort, the State Fair of West Virginia and the Greenbrier County Airport Authority.
“The research will tell us who our visitors are and where they’re coming from,” Dense said in the annual report. “It will also shed light on what visitors think of us, our strengths and weaknesses as a destination and define new opportunities.”
After the stakeholder rollout, the study’s results will be presented at a public meeting as well, she said.
The CVB’s annual marketing campaign — designed to drive visitor traffic to the Greenbrier Valley — targeted Washington, D.C.; Charleston and Huntington, W.Va.; Roanoke and Richmond, Va.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Columbus, Ohio.
The Greenbrier Valley Visitors Center in Lewisburg enjoyed its biggest day in history on April 13, the day of the Lewisburg Chocolate Festival. Staff at the center had already sold 5,720 tasting tickets to local chocolate lovers prior to the event and greeted more than 4,500 attendees on festival day, according to the annual report.
The center served as a festival hub, with four tasting stations, a chef demonstration, seating, Wi-Fi and restrooms.
Dense told commissioners that she is particularly excited about the investments White Sulphur Springs is now seeing.
A pullout printed summary included in the annual report packet touted White Sulphur’s position as one of two Greenbrier County towns named as Opportunity Zones, a designation that encourages long-term investment. The Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corporation is working with the town to attract new businesses under the Opportunity Zone umbrella.
Investors are already at work in the Spa City, the summary reveals, touching upon work being done by three individuals/entities:
• Tom Crabtree, one of the founders of Hope Village, is intent on establishing a White Sulphur Springs Foundation which will ultimately assist businesses financially and help out with streetscape improvements and architectural design advice.
• David Bostic is working to open a multi-business complex that will include a fresh market, banquet hall, microbrewery and taproom, and a coffee shop.
• Appalachian Extracts has invested $10 million in capital for a CBD extraction facility and has plans to hire more than 80 people in the coming months.
In addition to those private investors, city government is also taking an active role in revitalizing White Sulphur Springs, the summary notes. Mayor Bruce Bowling is working with WVU, Monongahela National Forest and the CVB on a branding project that will culminate with White Sulphur being one of 11 municipalities that will be branded Mon Forest Towns. The cooperative venture will encourage recreational development and strive to attract outdoor enthusiasts to the area.
“We think it’s truly just the beginning for White Sulphur Springs,” Dense told commissioners.
In a later interview with The Register-Herald at her office, Dense shared some of the CVB’s financial details.
Much of the CVB’s budget is reliant upon hotel/motel occupancy tax revenue — often referred to as bed taxes. By law, the visitors bureau receives half of the bed taxes collected by each of the four municipalities that impose an occupancy tax and by the county commission, which collects bed taxes on lodging establishments (including The Greenbrier) in the unincorporated areas of the county.
End of fiscal year budget figures show the CVB received bed tax revenue in the following amounts from the government units:
• Greenbrier County — $629,513.18
• Lewisburg — $289,864.74
• White Sulphur Springs — $1,555.49
• Alderson — $1,502.31
• Ronceverte — $42.30
Total revenue for fiscal year 2018-19 (including visitors center rentals and miscellaneous sales) was $1,049,580.93, while expenses totaled $928,338.54, seemingly leaving the CVB with more than a $120,000 profit.
That is not the case, however, Dense said, explaining that the expense figures don’t include a principal payment of $37,200.69 toward the debt owed on the CVB building or the $90,000 paid to the county commission as an annual installment to repay the loan the commission made to the CVB in 2016 to fund a special tourism marketing push after that year’s devastating flood.
Once those two items are put into the mix, the budget is nearly $6,000 in the red, Dense pointed out.
Dense said the year’s revenues were slightly more than the budgeted amount, and the expenses were also a little higher than anticipated, but well within expectations.
Based on occupancy tax funding, the Greenbrier County CVB ranks fifth among West Virginia’s visitors bureaus, behind only (in order) Charleston, Morgantown, Visit Southern West Virginia and Wheeling.
Although the latest economic impact figures are not yet available, Dense said the county’s rank there usually mirrors its tax funding position.
Direct spending in Greenbrier County by tourists in 2017 (the most recent figures available) totaled $232.5 million.
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