You are on page 1of 11

Below are the complete remarks of ​Himanshu Karvir​, vice chair of the Buncombe County

Tourism Development Authority, from the authority’s Nov. 20 meeting. The transcript has been
lightly edited for readability, with unclear sections from the ​Xpress ​recording of the meeting
denoted using “[inaudible].” Sections appearing as quotations were read verbatim by Karvir from
“​It’s time to end the Buncombe TDA,​” an opinion piece by activist and blogger ​Ami Worthen
published in the Nov. 15 edition of the ​Citizen Times​.

I would like to take a few minutes to go over something, some notes I have. It’s taken me a long
time and it’s taken me a lot of thinking whether this is the right place to bring this up. And since
[inaudible] mentioned that the TDA goes over a lot of the things that we do in this room, every
month what happens in this building, I think this is the appropriate venue to talk about this, if I
may have a few minutes to talk here.

This is going to be a difficult few minutes for me because I’m going to share some insights and
share some thoughts that I have regarding the opinion piece that was posted in the ​Citizen
Times​: “The Buncombe TDA spends millions on unsustainable tourism — and we can stop it,”
the opinion piece reads.

The most recent attacks, and in previous ones, I have noticed that facts and data do not matter
but individual opinions do. So I’ve prepared some of my own individual opinions; sometimes
they are supported by facts and data [inaudible], but some are opinions.

And when [Asheville City Council member] ​Julie [Mayfield]​ is here, she always talks about, “I’m
going to wear my MountainTrue hat, or I’m going to wear my City Council hat.” I’m wearing all
my hats today. I'm wearing my TDA hat, I’m wearing my business owner hat, citizen of
Asheville, [Asheville Area] Chamber [of Commerce member], you name it. United Way, the
nonprofit that [inaudible] have started. Citizen, taxpayer. I’m wearing all my hats today. Again,
this is a direct response to this article, this opinion piece that was posted.

I’m going to read some of the [piece] and then I want to respond. The first paragraph reads this:

“This is a call for the Buncombe County Commissioners to repeal the occupancy tax and end
the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority (TDA). Since being established in 1983,
the TDA has grown into a giant institution that does more harm than good. Our community
would be better off without it.”

Well, obviously I do not agree with that statement. In my opinion, the BCTDA and the
occupancy tax have done more good than harm in the community, and it continues to do good
in the community [inaudible]. Our community would not be better off without it; the community
would suffer tremendously without the investment of the TDA. We need the TDA to get the
tourists here, to get the people here, to grow our local businesses — and yes, to grow our hotels
and other lodging properties that are available in this town.

“As a significant part of our local economy, I am not advocating against tourism per se — I am
advocating against the existence of a tourism-driving entity that has incredible power, a narrow
agenda, unsustainable outcomes and no real checks and balances for their actions.”

Let’s talk about advocating against the existence of a tourism-driving entity. So we are a
significant part of our economy; we’re not the biggest part of our economy, but we are a very
significant part of our economy. And we do have the data to back that up, that we do support a
lot of local businesses, we do hire a lot of people, and a lot of economic activity happens thanks
to the investment of the TDA base into our community and also the property taxes it generates.
It funds a lot of things that the Commissioner [and TDA board member ​Joe Belcher​] just

Then there is the incredible power of this board. I’ve been on the TDA for five years now, and
I’ve served on the Tourism Product Development Fund Committee for six seasons. I don’t see
that power that we hold. As a matter of fact, every single time when I mention that I’m on the
TDA, I’m kind of meekish about that, like it’s a bad thing. And you know, to be honest, I’m tired
of that too.

The TDA has “a narrow agenda.” Of course there is a narrow agenda, because that’s specified
by state law; it’s specified by the legislation. In any scope you look at, we’re very successful at
doing and accomplishing our “narrow agenda,” which again is specified by state law.

“We have unsustainable outcomes.” I don’t understand what that means. We have been doing
this for about 36-40 years, somewhere around there. And it looks like we are being sustainable.
If anything, as we have grown, we have not kept up — by we, I mean our seat at the county —
we have not kept up with the growth that has occurred in our community, with the infrastructure
that has not been invested in for decades. Again, these are my opinions. I don’t see how this is
the TDA’s responsibility.

Here’s the biggest one that has really ruffled my feathers: “There’s no real checks and balances
for their actions.” I don’t know where to start [with] this. This is another example of somebody’s
opinion, which is easy to put down words on paper and not back them up. The tax is collected
by the county; the tax is paid to the county; the expenses are going through the county; the
money is disbursed to the county accounting. As we just saw today, we had an audit that was
done by an external [inaudible] by the county, which also audits the TDA.

Our meetings are public; our agenda is public; our budget is public; there’s an attorney sitting
here to make sure that we stay in our guidelines, the legislative mandate. To me, there are real
checks and balances here, and if there is something that even looks like it’s out, we have board
members that bring it up. Again, this opinion that is posted here is not based on any reality.
The next paragraph talks about the background of the state statute and goes over the
guidelines. All I have to say about that is, that is the only thing in this whole thing that’s factually

“It is troubling to learn that this huge pot of money is controlled by a small appointed board of
only eight voting members — six who run hotels, and three who run businesses which benefit
from tourism. There is no system of accountability for this board.”

I’m not going to comment on the system of accountability, we just went over that. Yes, the tax is
collected by hotels and lodging associations and by short-term rentals and by businesses that
run short-term rentals. So yes, they are represented heavily on this board. They are appointed
by the county and the city; they are interviewed. We’re one of the few boards where City Council
interviews us on live camera and asks us questions: How we will spend this money, even
though there is a mandate telling us how we are supposed to spend the money.

There are also positions for a county commissioner and a City Council member on this board. I
know that Julie’s not here today, but she’s usually at the meetings. Commissioner Joe Belcher
is here. And they’re at most of the meetings. They ask questions, they raise concerns, and as
far as I know, we all take their considerations on actions and questions into consideration before
voting. And as I said, the question on accountability I’ve already mentioned above, I’ve already
cleared up.

“Following historical patterns, the TDA has focused its efforts on attracting wealthy visitors, with
target demographics such as ‘elite empty nesters.’ This over-funded outreach to an upper-class
audience has contributed to intense gentrification in our area, which has caused a lack of
affordable housing and related hardships for working class people and those on fixed incomes.
It has exacerbated racial inequities. Meanwhile, the tourism industry is not creating significant
numbers of high paying jobs.”

That’s the next paragraph. I want to start with the ‘elite empty nesters.’ So yes, they are part of a
subset with marketing. Since we’ve changed agencies, we call them something different, I’m
sure, but yes, we do target [them]. But there’s a reason for that, and people sitting on this board
know the reason behind that. They have more capacity to spend, to travel. They not only sustain
hotels, but they also spend money in the local businesses there. They go visit the breweries,
they go visit bars and local shops. You know, I’ve been to downtown stores, local stores that sell
socks for $15-$20. So, there is a market for those. They are the ones who go buy art from the
artists. They are the ones who go support the studios. We don’t have the local capacity here to
support all the arts and entertainment and the destinations that we [inaudible] in our community.

Personally, I would benefit 100% if we did mass marketing and focused on getting as many
people in this town as possible, because then they would spend money in my hotels and
definitely would benefit me more. But I think the TDA has always taken the standard that we
need to benefit everybody in the community and this needs to be an economy generator to

“Intense gentrification.” Ok, let's talk about gentrification. And since data and backing up claims
doesn’t matter, here’s my opinion: Gentrification is to me caused mostly because of policies that
we have in place. If you look at the investments that we make as a community, that our
government makes in our community, we are creating areas where we’re expecting people to
come in and invest their money in. I look at the River Arts District where New Belgium came in
and the city has invested $70 million realigning the streets. They have spent money on getting
parking there, on expanding sidewalks, on building parks, on doing greenways, blueways.
There’s a wave going up over in Woodfin.

All those things are good for our community, but at the same time, they are increasing property
values in those areas. And as property values go up, people that own the property who are
paying property taxes, if they see more value, they think, “I can get more money for my space,”
or “I need to charge more money.” And we are seeing what appears to be people leaving the
River Arts District, when as a matter of fact, when we have numbers and data — again, it
doesn’t matter, but we do have data — it backs up the claim that artists are growing in Asheville.
They are generating more revenue in Asheville, and the numbers are not declining.

One more thing is the investments [that] are made by the city or county in order to generate
further investment from the private sector into those areas. The idea is then that they generate
property taxes that then pay for the investments that they’ve made. And part of the reason is,
that’s what’s causing gentrification in the River Arts.

The other example I have is the opportunity zones that were created in the last year. Basically,
they give a break for investors for capital gains for 10 years, but they’re an economic tool used
to generate capital investment in areas that are defined in each city, in the whole country and in
the county. And if you look at our city and our county, those lie right around Martin Luther King
Drive, and if you look at that map, those are historically black neighborhoods. If money is going
to come from outside and invest in it, that is what’s going to cause gentrification, not tourism.

[The opinion piece] is talking about racial inequality, that we have exacerbated that. I don’t know
what that means and I don’t know how we have done that, but all I know is that we employ the
most diverse workforce there is. I’m an immigrant, and we employ a lot of immigrants who work
for us and have been working for us for years. Again, most of these comments sound every
good on paper and very divisive, and that’s why they’re written.

“Exponential growth in tourism has also contributed to rapid development and its subsequent
negative environmental impacts. We are seeing the effects on our water, utilities, tree canopy,
Yes, if you’re looking at hotels, we have seen a significant increase of hotels being constructed,
and that is because of multiple factors. One is the natural effect of the tourism economy, but
second — and again, I know data and information doesn’t matter — but after the recession
came out, a lot of people [and] a lot of banks had a lot of money. They were lending money at a
low rate, and people were looking to invest their dollars. It’s not just Asheville; it’s all over the
country where there is development happening with hotels specifically.

The other thing that the article mentions is development. I drive around town because I live here
and I see apartment complexes going up. I’ve seen hospitals that just went up: That’s serving
locals. In our community, I see apartments that are serving people that want to move here, that
want to live here, that want to work here. I don’t see how that development is being caused by

And moving to the effects of water utilities and treatment. Again, I’m not sure what they mean by
the effects on our water. Our water seems fine. We have breweries moving here because our
water is great. If they’re talking about infrastructure, again, that’s lack of investment in
infrastructure and not tourism. Again utilities, I don’t know. Duke [Energy], if you talk to them,
yes, they are building substations, but they would have to build substations regardless.

The tree canopy. That’s the one I do want to talk about, because that’s the latest buzzword in
our community. There was ​a report just published​, and why not blame tourism for the
disappearing tree canopy? If you're looking at hotel construction, because that’s the
development we’re talking about here, I’m looking at the last few hotel projects that have
happened in our community. One’s going across the street [on College Place], that’s the one
that I’m developing. And that was an empty, vacant parking lot. It had no trees on it. As a matter
of fact, I’ll be adding at least 15 trees to the tree canopy.

The one that’s going on the Eastbrook Mall that just started construction, it’s in a parking lot that
had no trees on it, and they’re adding green space to that area — on the roof, but they will be
adding green space. The two that just opened up, the Arras and the AC Hotel, they were both
existing structures, existing buildings. There were no trees gained or lost there.

The one that was approved across from the Mission Hospital, it’s an empty parking lot right now
that will get a hotel and trees, I’m sure, because landscaping is a part of the requirement to get
a permit in the city of Asheville development [code]. The Embassy Suites that’s under litigation
right now, if that does get constructed, again, it was a parking lot of a building and it will add to
the tree canopy. The one that was declined by City Council on Broadway, again, it was on two
parking lots and has no trees. I don’t know if they had space to add trees or not, but that one is
not going forward. As far as I can tell, our development is actually going to add to the tree

“With over 30,000 people visiting each day, the wear and tear on our resources is significant.”
Again, yes, 30,000 people are here. They’re not coming to the city of Asheville every single day.
They're spread out throughout the county. All our hotels are not in the city, not in the central
business district; they’re outside, and most of our folks that stay in our hotels don’t come to
downtown Asheville. If they do, we do offer them a shuttle, and I’ll get to that in a minute.

“The teams that manage the multimillion-dollar messaging about Asheville and Buncombe
County do not represent the range of people who live here. The TDA’s all-white Explore
Asheville staff are charged with the goal of filling hotel rooms. They spend big bucks hiring
marketing firms from out of town to develop slogans to sell us. The authentic cultural ecosystem
that exists here is not a factor in their process. Our community is commodified, packaged and
sold without our input and to our detriment.”

Yes, the TDA is all white, and that’s not because the TDA and Explore Asheville have a policy
that we will only hire all white people. The jobs are posted, people are interviewed, and qualified
people are offered the job. As far as I know, the TDA and Explore Asheville team tries as much
as possible to work with local teams, local firms, local photographers. Our large advertising
contracts do go out of state or out of our area, because again, as you can see, it’s a very
sophisticated media plan. It needs [inaudible] power, it needs analysis, data analysis, statistics,
and they provide all of that — again, to actually do what this agency, this authority, stands to do.

I don’t think we’re commodifying and are packaged and sold. The way I look at it is, we highlight
the experiences that are meant to be shared and the surrounding area that is meant to be

“Ending the TDA will not end tourism. Fears that we will return to the desolate downtown of the
1980s are unfounded — we have the internet and social media now. We are well known. There
are thousands of businesses benefiting from tourism which are already marketing themselves
and will continue. Without the TDA monopolizing Buncombe County’s brand, there could be
space for more voices to tell our story.”

“Ending the TDA will not end tourism” — probably not right away. But over time, it will, without
the investment that we continue to keep ourselves in the market, to help ourselves, to help our
name to be out there in the marketplace. When people are making those decisions where they
will spend their money, I want them to spend it in our community than elsewhere. So yes, it will
have an impact. Will it go back to the desolate downtown of the ‘80s? Probably not. I don’t think
it will. I do know that if we do decrease that, businesses will suffer. The breaking-even point of
some businesses will go down, and they will go out of business.

It talks about the power of social media for marketing. It’s such a crowded field, as you can see.
Just this team is constantly on social media. I don’t think it’s possible for me, or my team even,
to be able to do that. We don’t have the capacity or the resources to do that.
It also talks about that, without the TDA monopolizing Buncombe County’s brand, there is now
space for [more voices]. I have never seen a team more open, who are more willing to work with
locals and show what they’ve done in our community, than this team. And if there is more to be
done on that, you need to reach out to them and they'll work with you. There’s nothing that says
that we cannot listen to our local voices and look at how we need to brand our community.

“The TDA is quick to rattle off numbers about the revenue generated by tourism. But at what
cost? If we could quantify the value of what we have lost by growing tourism in such a top-down,
irresponsible manner, I believe it would far exceed the revenue numbers.”

Again, we do rattle off the numbers because we do use money, that is, the occupancy tax, and
we do want to show the return on the investment that we're making. And we’re doing a bang-up
job doing that. I don’t see the costs of that. “We’re growing in an irresponsible manner” — we
are, I believe, the opposite. The benefits far exceed the quantified value of what we are losing.
The benefits are far more for our local businesses, for our residents and for our city and our

“As long as state law requires occupancy tax to be used by a TDA on destination promotion and
products, I say we turn off the hose that’s drowning us. Yes, ending the occupancy tax could
financially favor corporate hoteliers who could keep their room rates at current levels. But the
ability of the TDA to shape our community to their benefit would be gone.”

Again, to me, these words are meant to be divisive and are completely untrue. We have
discussed tourism promotion before; that’s a legislative mandate, and we are good at doing that.
As much as the products are valued by the TDA’s investment to generate room nights, they also
add to liveability and attraction for residents as well. The TDA doesn’t actually specifically own
any product. We, through the Tourism Product Development Fund, invest money in existing
projects or properties around the city and the county.

Most of the money has gone to the city and county projects. By the way, when the city and the
county do apply for those funds, they have to show to us how this investment is going to
increase overnight visitation. In essence, every time we do a project, it is increasing visitation to
our community. But at the same time, the parks, the greenways, the blueways, the baseball
fields, the soccer complex, they all add to the liveability of our community. My kids play soccer
on those fields. We go on greenways. We use all of these amenities that are invested in by the
city, the county and the TDA. And of course they attract visitors.

And again, geographically, Buncombe County is located in such an appealing and beautiful part
of the country, and we need to share it.

The corporate hoteliers, that's another thing just to be divisive. Our family has been here for 40
years. My father immigrated from India a long time ago and started a business here. I have
joined the business since 20 years ago. I got married in this town; I’ve been raising my family
here. We’re investing in this community, not only in our dollars, but our time and effort and
nonprofit work. We’re not corporate hoteliers, and 76% of the hotels in Buncombe County are
owned and operated by people who live in Buncombe County.

The bed and breakfasts are people that live in those communities and in those homes and
serve the guests. The short-term rentals or the Airbnbs, technically those in the city of Asheville
are supposed to be people that live here and take benefit of that. We are heavily invested in our
community, in our businesses, both financially and emotionally.

Our hotels are open 24/7, 365 days a year. We work every day of every year. My phone is on
me 24/7, even if I'm traveling. If I’m going to visit my family in India, I have my phone on me
because I know I’m working. We employ, like I said, a lot of immigrants. A lot of the families that
own and operate business here are immigrants, and they employ a lot of immigrants.

The question I have is, how does the TDA “shape our community” to benefit us?’ We don’t
shape our community to benefit us. Again, like I said, we use the advertising to get people here,
to bring people here to actually highlight and share the experiences that we have here, to go
shopping places, to go eat in the restaurants, to go in the breweries, to go into the art studios,
and to help the businesses that are actually here and thrive.

“Some suggest that, instead of repealing the occupancy tax, we lobby state legislators to
change what it can be used for. With our state government as it is, this would likely be a long
and arduous process, wherein a repeal can happen locally with a majority vote from the
commissioners. Their action could quickly eliminate the current problems with the TDA. Then, if
so desired, state-level advocacy for an alternative configuration could be undertaken.”

So, this is a new take I’ve seen on attacking the TDA and the occupancy tax. For years and
years, everybody has tried, like the article says, to change it at a state level. It has not
happened. The article alludes to the fact that it is because of the makeup of the state legislation
at this point; that is incorrect. The guidelines that are specified in the year [the occupancy tax]
was adopted was when the state legislation was Democrat controlled. The guidelines are used
not just by Buncombe County but [by] all 100 county TDAs that are in the state of North

I want to go back to this — “The state level is not working, so let’s look at the local level here.”
That’s the beginning that I'm seeing here right now, which is to create an extreme and false
narrative to discount facts and data and to be divisive in our community. I see this totally as one
of the strategies to win elections in the upcoming election. We are entering an election cycle
here. And in our community, unfortunately, it’s been proven before that it works.

The example I came up with is the Pit of Despair, where City Council elections were won and
lost on that one issue of a park. And I do want to point out that we still don’t have a park and
we’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants to tell us what to do and how to
do it there. Let’s not make this one issue where elections are won and lost.

“The action could quickly eliminate the current problems with the TDA.” Again, that’s that
person’s opinion. In my opinion, there are no problems with the TDA. The problems lie
elsewhere. The problems lies in the opinions like these. The problem lies with individuals that
have nothing to do with our industry and have no idea how hotels operate, how the TDA
operates and what the occupancy tax does for our community and what it does to support our
local businesses.

I do want to mention that this article does mention there are thousands of businesses that are
benefiting from tourism, so I’m referring to the thousands of businesses that benefit from

I do also believe sometimes our media portrays and feeds the narrative by using divisive
headlines, by not publishing data that does not support or fit the narrative. And you know, when
the ​Citizen Times​ actually started one day to start charging people to read articles, they posted
three negative stories about hotels and tourism in one day. They’re actively posting negative
tourism stories on known Facebook pages that are active on anti-tourism and actively soliciting
comments. And I get all that stuff, but I think the problem lies there.

Our slogan is “Tourism Builds Community,” and that person [Worthen] doesn’t agree. Well, I
100% believe in that statement, that tourism does build community. [The article] also mentions:
“In order for people who live here to thrive, we need to be building with each other, not courting
rich visitors.”

That statement to me means that people living here are not thriving. Which again, is incorrect.
There are 100,000 people that live here and hundreds of people moving here because they are
thriving. They are fulfilling what they do in their lives here. And honestly, the TDA doesn’t have
that much power, ok? I don’t know how we can have that much impact on people’s lives to not
be able to make them thrive.

I do agree that we need to build with each other. That’s one thing I do agree with. That’s
something that we need to do, we have been doing, and will continue to do regardless of
articles like this. And then it says: “By making the bold move to repeal the occupancy tax, the
Buncombe County commissioners can shift our current trajectory towards greater balance and
generative possibilities.”

It took me a long time to figure this out — English is [my] third, fourth language — what
“generative” possibly means, and I still don’t know what that means. But I do want to talk about
“the bold move to repeal the occupancy tax.” It’s not a bold move. I think it will impact the
livelihood of thousands of people in Buncombe County that depend on the marketing dollars in
the market. Even if they might not realize it, they depend on it.
Let’s say we repealed it tomorrow. Eventually the property values will go down, and when
property values go down, tax revenues will go down for collecting property taxes, which funds
most of our government. And it will just overall be a negative impact on everybody that lives in
Buncombe County.

I was born and raised in India and very early on learned that the British were able to control us
for a very long time, rule India for a very long time, because they used the simple technique of
divide and conquer. I see that happening here in our community every single day, whether it’s
the TDA or the occupancy tax, or it’s the Chamber of Commerce, whether it’s economic
development, whether it’s housing, or you name it. We are using divide and conquer, and we
cannot let that happen in our community.

We are jokingly called evil hoteliers. We’re not evil. We are portrayed as evil hoteliers who are
uncaring and entities that are out to exploit the city and make a quick buck. That is not the case.
The TDA just happens to be a very public and obvious target of that portrayal, and it’s happened
over and over again. I obviously am taking great offense to all of this, the notion and the
portrayal of the occupancy tax and the TDA and hotels and hoteliers.

Most of you have worked for me before. Most of you know me. This is very difficult for me, to sit
here and say these things. And you might be a little surprised that I am actually doing this
because, to be honest, I’m surprised I’m doing this. But I’ve had enough. It’s taken a long, slow
beating that has finally made me write this. This constant barrage of negative opinions posted
online, and now they’re being posted on candidates’ websites; most of their websites put that
information out there because, that is the topic.

We have been putting out data and information [about] how much it benefits Buncombe County
residents on lowering their property taxes; we highlight $44 million in investments we make in
our community. Those numbers don’t matter. It’s individuals that sit around this table. It’s
individuals that are sitting in the audience. It’s individuals that are sitting behind me. It’s the
hundreds of people that are working across the street for me right now, putting up that hotel. It’s
hundreds of people that I employ, that have been with us for 15-20 years [or] at some point
worked for us. They matter.

When you are insulting an industry, you’re insulting all of those people that live in our
community. They’re your neighbors; they live next to you. I’m tired of being picked on. I’m tired
of being afraid to say something because it might come back and bite me, because I live in this
community, a very loving community. As a matter of fact, I can play a message from five
minutes ago — the governor just called and left a voicemail because I said I have something
coming for him. I am very involved.

But I’ve had enough. This narrative cannot be dictated by a small minority — and they’re a very
vocal minority, but they are there. Now, are there actual impacts of tourism in our community?
Yes. there are. I am not denying any of those things. I’m not saying that we are doing this and
everything is rosy and everything is great. There are impacts on our community. We have
always said that, and I will continue to say that, and there is a process to go through that. We
are working through that process right now. Does everybody agree with that process? No. Does
everyone agree with the data that comes out of that process? I’m sure they don’t. But it is what
we are doing right now.

In spite of all these things that have happened over the 10 years that I’ve been involved in the
TDA, we have never, never shied away from the fact that we need to be more responsive. We
need to be able to work with our city and the county and our community to help to counter some
of the impacts of tourism. We are working on it right now. It is a process. It has to happen as a

If at any point during this whole 15-20 minutes of my ​Jerry Maguire​ moment, if you felt that “This
guy is an idiot,” that “This guy has no idea what he’s talking about,” that “I can come up with 10
examples of what gentrification is or what tourism has done for gentrification” or “I can think of
five reasons why housing is impacted by tourism,” welcome to my world.

Every time I read an opinion piece, I’m saying, “Wrong. I can counter that.” So we can go back
and forth forever about whose responsibility it is, or we can get together as a community, focus
on the positives, work together, know that there’s negative impacts, and come up with solutions
that the TDA, the occupancy tax, the city and the county and independent nonprofits and
for-profits can come together [over] and actually help solve this problem, rather than throwing
arrows and accusations and unfounded information out in public. That’s how, unfortunately,
most people base their opinions on.

Having said that, my name is Himanshu Karvir. I am a hotelier. I am not an activist writer. I am
100% a community collaborator. And I love Asheville.