Several City Council members are raising questions about whether Christiansburg must continue to contribute to a tourism program that it co-funds with the City of Blacksburg and Montgomery County.
Christiansburg’s governing body last month approved by a vote of 4 to 2 the filing of a letter of intent to withdraw from the agreement they had with Blacksburg and the county to create and implement the program. The agreement requires a participating company to provide 12 months’ notice if it formally decides whether or not to exit the agreement.
“However, the City Council plans to review this decision in two months with Tourism Executive Director David Rotenizer [it] wanted to make the LOI at this time,” read the statement, which was signed by Christiansburg Town Manager Randy Wingfield and addressed to Montgomery County Administrator Craig Meadows and Blacksburg Town Manager Marc Verniel.
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Rotenizer runs the Montgomery County Blacksburg Christiansburg Regional Tourism Office, an entity funded by a fraction of what each of these three locations receives from its lodging tax.
Officials outside of Christiansburg have raised concerns about how the regional tourism effort could be affected if the city later decides to pull out of the agreement.
Such a move would also be unusual since Christiansburg is typically a key partner in a number of New River Valley organizations and ministries that have members from multiple locations.
Verniel said the county and its two cities, combining their resources allows them to get more bang for their buck when it comes to attracting visitors to the area.
“When we started, the intention was to work together on tourism,” said the Blacksburg city manager. “If Christiansburg pulls out … their part of the funding will go away, and we’ll have to regroup and figure out how to promote tourism in the county and in Blacksburg.”
The regional tourism office currently has a budget of $371,333. Of that amount, $181,000 is from Blacksburg, $164,333 is from Christiansburg, and $26,000 is from the county, according to figures provided by Rotenizer last week.
While the county provides the smallest portion of the funding, Rotenizer said the value of the support that local departments regularly provide to his office far exceeds that amount.
The Tourist Office works to promote the region’s attractions. The gotomontva.com website has information on local destinations such as the Huckleberry Trail and the Starlite Drive-In Theater in Christiansburg.
While the recent notice doesn’t take Christiansburg out of the deal for now, it’s an important first step the municipality needs to take if it eventually decides to stop funding the tourist office on a regular basis.
“I think this…letter will notify the district and the tourist office. I think it’s more of an indication that they need to do more in terms of website updates and things like that,” Christiansburg Mayor Mike Barber said last week. “It is a serious message.”
Barber did not vote on the notice – he only votes in a tie – but he defended the Bureau’s work when his colleagues debated the issue last month.
When the need to make the best use of Christiansburg’s taxpayers’ money was raised, Barber said the funds from the housing did not necessarily come from the city’s residents.
“That 1% of lodging tax revenue isn’t our citizen taxpayers’ money,” the mayor said. “These are people who come here, stay here, and maybe stay here, and use it as a center to go to Floyd … It doesn’t cost our taxpaying citizens a dime.”
“Unless it’s you [a resident] If you stay at a Holiday Inn or Hampton Inn three nights a week, you pay none of these taxes.”
Barber provided some numbers to highlight the amount of revenue the lodging tax has pumped into the city over the years. He said the city makes an average of $1.7 million a year, an amount he said isn’t a bad deal given how much money the city gives to the regional tourist office.
Barber also brought up previous reports from Rotenizer’s predecessor, which chronicled the tourism dollars generated each year in Montgomery County. The mayor said that if he remembered correctly, several million dollars would go to Christiansburg.
While the lodging tax may not always apply directly to Christiansburg residents, some council members said the issue was of local concern.
Councilor Henry Showalter, one of the four members who voted for the latest notice, said hotel and motel operators want the city to use the money it puts into tourism initiatives to fill rooms.
“At the end of the day, we’re using a Christiansburg tax base,” he said. “We owe some responsibility to our dealers who collect this.”
Showalter, along with Council Member Tim Wilson, raised concerns about the accuracy of some of gotomontva.com’s content designed to promote Christiansburg.
Wilson pointed to a section of land in downtown Christiansburg and Blacksburg. For Christiansburg, a link is paired with an image of a structure at Sinkland Farms, which he says is not part of downtown and not even within city limits.
“This isn’t downtown Christiansburg,” said Wilson, who met with Rotenizer months ago to discuss the matter. “I think we deserve better service. Sometimes you have to ask for better service.”
Wilson said last week he sees the partnership as a valuable asset but argues it is not being managed at the level he feels is appropriate for the city.
Showalter also called for improvements to the regional tourism website.
Councilwoman Johana Hicks, who has polled other inter-municipal entities Christiansburg is a part of in the past, pointed to some of the publicity the municipality has done itself, and in particular city spokeswoman Christina Edney, who quipped the council member during the call last month likely to get a raise with the money made available to the regional tourist office.
“I think we’ll have to see if we get our money’s worth,” Hicks said last month. “That’s a lot of money from our city’s budget, and personally I think we can do this job internally.”
However, there are some council members who are strongly opposed to the proposal that Christiansburg drop out of the tourism agreement.
Councilor Sam Bishop, who voted against the notice, said Rotenizer still hasn’t had enough time to resolve the issues raised by other councilors. Rotenizer started its activity in the tourism sector at the end of last year.
“Things don’t happen overnight,” said Bishop, who was among those who supported inviting Rotenizer to a future council meeting to present his work and hopefully persuade other council members to drop the issue. “I mean we have new leadership, he’s trying to get help.”
Rotenizer, which is due to appear before the Christiansburg Council next month, said there was a lot going on with the program that “isn’t all on the surface.”
For example, Rotenizer spoke about representing the Montgomery County region at a multi-day event being hosted by the International Bluegrass Music Association late next month in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. He said he will be staffing a booth paid for by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, which will allow him to connect with many people and promote the county’s attractions, including Christiansburg.
Rotenizer said it would be unfortunate if Christiansburg dropped out of the agreement.
“It’s basically ‘together we stand.’ Our strength lies in cooperation. We have to work together, the two cities and the county,” said Rotenizer, who also noted the impact of the pandemic on tourism.
Verniel said Christiansburg and other parts of the county often benefit, even when people come from outside for an event at Blacksburg or Virginia Tech.
“They don’t really see the boundaries,” he said, adding that they might be in the area for something in Blacksburg, but they’ll stay and eat in Christiansburg.
Verniel pointed to other activities, such as tech sporting events, which he says often result in hotels being filled throughout the Montgomery County area.
“Structured tourism development is much more than posting social media and website content — you don’t paint the siding of a new home before the foundation is built,” Rotenizer wrote in an email.