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Tourism council balances interests of old, new businesses

WOODSTOCK – The Shenandoah County Tourism Council met with representatives of the Virginia Tourism Corporation on Tuesday to discuss implementing tourism zones in the county, as well as planning strategies to convince the Board of Supervisors to sign on.

Tourism zones are locality defined areas that offer tax incentives and regulatory flexibility to businesses. For instance, a tourism zone could reduce permit fees for a new business moving into a tourism zone, or offer special zoning.

Wirt Confroy, Virginia Tourism Corporation director of business development, emphasized that these zones are distinct from traditional zoning, and the two don’t conflict with each other – “this is more like a small-z ‘zone’ than a big-z ‘Zone’,” he said.

Jenna French, director of tourism and economic development, said the zones would be an effective strategy to encourage more development in the county, helping new and established businesses piggyback off of each other.

However, some council members expressed concerns that the zones would prioritize new businesses. Coe Sherrard, owner of Woodstock Café & Shoppes, said it could even possibly spark new rivalries, using the Southern Kitchen Restaurant in New Market as an example.

“If Southern Kitchen found out that somebody was going to put in a tourism zone, and a new restaurant could come in and have incentives and tax breaks and not pay permits,” Sherrard said, “Every restaurant that I represent in the county would say, ‘What the heck?'”

Still, he recognized the need for growth in the county’s restaurant scene.  Saying, “our county sucks when it comes to restaurants,” Sherrard said there was a need to encourage denser groupings of restaurants to make the overall areas more attractive.

One solution Confroy proposed, pointing to a strategy used by Waynesboro, was to develop a scorecard for businesses both old and new to determine what incentives would be most useful for different companies. This way all businesses could receive benefits tailored to their needs, and the county wouldn’t have to slash crucial taxes across the board.

Another concern that arose Tuesday was how to measure the impact of tourism zones. Because some taxes for new companies in a tourism zone would be waived or reduced for the first few years, it would take an extended interval of time to measure direct financial benefits to the county.

But French argued it would also be difficult to ascertain how many business opened shop as a direct result of the zone’s incentives.

“You’re always going to have some that just would (open in the area) regardless,” French said. “For how many was this really a factor in choosing their location and making their decision?”

Confroy said the Virginia Tourism Corporation is working with other communities throughout the state that have their own tourism zones to develop a framework for measuring the zones’ return on investment.

The tourism council managed to establish a quorum Tuesday, despite the snowy weather, but opted to wait until next month’s meeting to hear the opinions of more members before presenting their pitch for tourism zones to the Board of Supervisors.

Michelle Bixler, Strasburg’s economic development and marketing manager, advised presenting the idea to the board sooner rather than later, and based on the board’s reaction decide whether this initiative was worth investing time and resources into.

“You might just test the waters and see where they are,” Bixler said. “Because we don’t want to put a lot of work into it when they have zero appetite for it.”

Also at the meeting Tuesday, French announced the council’s Washington, D.C. Metro initiative had launched successfully Monday. Buses throughout the city were wrapped in ads featuring scenic Shenandoah County images and the slogan: “This Is Our Rush Hour.”

The campaign will continue for eight weeks, encompassing Washington, D.C.’s cherry blossom season.

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