Gov. Roy Cooper announced this month that each of North Carolina’s 100 counties saw growth in its visitor spending last year.
For Chatham County, a largely rural community, that means big promise for its business sector.
Spending in Chatham County by domestic visitors increased by over 5 percent last year, from about $35 million in 2017 to $36.9 million in 2018. That growth saved each Chathamite almost $38 in taxes and contributed to increases in the county’s tourism-related payroll.
Neha Shah, director of the Pittsboro-Siler City Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that visitors to the county are diverse, and while there are national and international visitors, the majority are traveling from within the state.
The data, produced with the help of Visit North Carolina, looks impressive on the spreadsheet, but the optimism its creating in Chatham’s marketplace reveals the real ‘wow’ factor.
For local businesses and agritourism in the county, new visitors mean fresh dollars entering the economy that feed back into supporting vendors and maintaining the county’s attractions.
Agritourism alone is a particularly strong interest because of the county’s various farmers’ markets, farms, craft beverages and food trails.
“We’re a county that really thrives with our agritourism because of our farms and venues, so that’s all really grown over time,” Shah said. “That has also lended itself to the farm-to-fork places, and even the restaurants that are not solely focused on farm to fork still incorporate a lot of the local farm products.”
Jon Spoon, director of the Small Business Center and a native Chathamite, said that ecotourism will account for a large part of the travel growth because of the county’s unique landscape. He said the county’s three rivers and Jordan Lake are draws for surrounding communities, especially bigger cities like Raleigh and Durham.
“Chatham County, historically, has been largely agricultural, especially the western part of the county, and so there are folks who are positioning themselves well to capture incoming dollars,” Spoon said.
When visitors spend locally, cashflow feeds into sales tax, which then goes to the county. That’s also where residents see tax savings. Additionally, the occupancy tax is paid by a visitor to an accommodation, and those dollars return to the tourism budget to promote businesses, Shah said.
Chatham County’s occupancy tax is 3 percent of the gross charge of the overnight stay, so tapping into the wealth from overnight stays is on businesses’ minds.
But because of more limited lodging accommodations, Shah said most of the visits now are short day trips or visits to wedding or event venues.
“We have people coming, but they’re not necessarily always staying overnight here,” Shah said.
Major hotels in the county include The Fearrington House Inn, Amerivu Inn and Suites and Days Inn and Suites. A few bed-and-breakfasts and motels dot the county, as well.
But Spoon said lodging should be an area of growth to accommodate visitor booms in the future. He said that the motels aren’t able to accommodate large groups and provide activities, and the Southern Village hotel, while proximal, is expensive.
“Historically, Chatham County has been kind of a bedroom community where most people work in other counties,” Spoon said.
One development in the making is in Chatham Park in Pittsboro. The $15 billion development project includes a hotel as part of its building plan.
Spoon also cited retail leakage as an issue that the county, under its comprehensive plan, looks to fix with industrial development in certain municipalities.
Spoon said many Chatham business owners opened their enterprises two to three years ago, so they are ready for growth. He added that newer developments like Briar Chapel and Chatham Park offer live-work-play communities to invite and retain newcomers.
“It’s been tough to plan things when there’s not a place for people to stay locally,” Spoon said. “I think that’ll be a big turning point.”
A conglomerate lodging space opens up even more revenue-churning opportunities like corporate retreats and visiting industry groups. Because Chatham County is so central in the state, Spoon said, it’s ideal for hosting statewide conferences, especially since the state has also seen an increase in visits.
“As the No. 6 state in the country for overnight visitation, we can attribute our success to the natural beauty and authenticity that visitors experience, and to a passionate effort to inform and inspire travelers” said Wit Tuttell, executive director of Visit North Carolina, in the release. “The money they spend benefits everyone by sustaining jobs and reducing our residents’ tax burden,”
Spoon, who also serves on the county’s planning board, said for all this optimism to manifest into real success requires planning and foresight.
“It’s just a really important time,” He said. “This is the last chance that we’ll get to define our character as a county. Otherwise it’ll just be whoever comes in tells us who we are.”
With this growth, Chatham County proves to be dynamic, not just in its tourism expansion, but also in its political attitude.
The county, for example, voted to remove the Confederate monument from Pittsboro this month. But despite any tensions, Spoon doesn’t think it will deter visitors.
“This breakdown of more rural mindsets, and more UNC spillover and folks moving here from different places that don’t have the same sensibilities, that’s always been there,” Spoon said. “A statue is just an easy flashpoint for that, but it’s not going to dissuade people from coming here.”