Christiansburg officials question town involvement in regional tourism initiative | Govt and Politics


Several members of the Town Council are raising questions about whether Christiansburg needs to continue paying into a tourism program that they fund along with the town of Blacksburg and Montgomery County.

Christiansburg’s governing body, in a 4-2 vote last month, approved the submission of a notification of intent to withdraw from the agreement they formed with Blacksburg and the county to create and implement the program. The agreement requires a participating entity to provide a notice 12 months ahead of when it would formally decide on whether or not to pull out of the arrangement.

“Town council plans to review this decision in two months with Tourism Executive Director David Rotenizer, though [it] wanted to provide the notice of intent at this time,” reads the notice, 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 heads the Montgomery County Blacksburg Christiansburg Regional Tourism Office, an entity that is funded by a fraction of the funds each of those three localities get from their lodging tax.

Officials outside of Christiansburg have voiced concerns about how regional tourism efforts could be impacted should the town later decide to get out of the agreement.

Such a move would also be unusual as Christiansburg is usually a key partner in a number of New River Valley organizations and services that have membership from multiple localities.

Verniel said the the county and its two towns pulling their resources together allows them to get more bang for their buck when it comes to overall efforts to attract visitors to the area.

“When it was created, the intent was to work on tourism jointly,” the Blacksburg town manager said. “If Christiansburg pulls out … their portion of the funding will go away, and we’ll have to regroup and figure out how to promote tourism in the county and Blacksburg.”

The regional tourism office currently has a budget of $371,333. Of that amount, $181,000 comes from Blacksburg, $164,333 from Christiansburg and $26,000 from the county, according to figures Rotenizer provided this past week.

While the county provides the smallest share of the funding, Rotenizer said the value of support that locality’s departments regularly provide his office far exceeds that amount.

The tourism office works to promote the area’s attractions. Its website, gotomontva.com, includes 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 agreement for now, it is a key first step the locality needs to take if it wants to eventually stop regularly funding the tourism office.

“I think this … letter is putting the county and tourism office on notice. I think it is more of a notice that they need to do more as far as website updates and things like that,” Christiansburg Mayor Mike Barber said this past week. “It’s a serious notice.”

Barber didn’t vote on the notice—he only votes in the event of a tie—but he did provide some defense of the office’s work when his colleagues debated the issue last month.

When the need to use Christiansburg taxpayer money in the best way possible was brought up, Barber said the funds from lodging doesn’t necessarily come from town residents.

“This 1% of lodging tax revenue, that is not our citizen taxpayers’ money,” the mayor said. “Those are people that come here, stay here and they may stay here and use it as a center to go to Floyd … This doesn’t cost our tax paying citizens a penny.

“Unless you’re [a resident] staying at a Holiday Inn or Hampton Inn three nights a week, then you’re not paying any of that tax.”

Barber cited some figures to highlight the amount of revenue the lodging tax has pumped into the town over the years. He said the town averages about $1.7 million a year, an amount he described as not a bad deal when considering the money the town gives the regional tourism office.

Barber also brought up past reports presented by Rotenizer’s predecessor that tracked the tourism dollars generated in Montgomery County every year. The mayor said, if he recalls correctly, several millions of dollars would track into Christiansburg.

While the lodging tax might not always apply directly to Christiansburg residents, some council members said the issue is of local concern.

Councilman Henry Showalter, one of the four members who voted in favor of the recent notice, said hotel and motel operators want the town to use the money it puts into tourism initiatives to help fill rooms.

“At the end of the day, it is a Christiansburg tax base that we’re using,” he said. “There is some responsibility we owe to our merchants who collect that.”

Showalter, along with Councilman Tim Wilson, raised concerns about the accuracy of some of the gotomontva.com content intended to promote Christiansburg.

Wilson pointed to a section of the site on the Christiansburg and Blacksburg downtowns. For Christiansburg, a link is paired with an image of a structure at Sinkland Farms, which he said is not part of the downtown and not even within the town limits.

“That’s not downtown Christiansburg,” said Wilson, who had met with Rotenizer months ago to go over the matter. “I think we deserve better service. Sometimes there are ways you have to ask for better service.”

Wilson said this past week he views the partnership as a valuable asset, but argues it’s not being administered to the level he believes is adequate for the town.

Showalter also called for improvements to the regional tourism website.

Councilwoman Johana Hicks, who has in the past questioned other multi-locality entities of which Christiansburg is a member, touted some of the promotional work the locality has done on its own and particularly town spokeswoman Christina Edney, whom the council member quipped during the talk last month could probably get a raise with the money provided to the regional tourism office.

“I think we need to see if we’re getting our money’s worth,” Hicks said last month. “This is a lot of money out of our town’s budget, and I personally feel like we can do that job internally.”

There are some council members, however, who staunchly oppose the suggestion Christiansburg pull out of the tourism agreement.

Councilman Sam Bishop, who voted against the notice, said Rotenizer still hasn’t been given enough time to fulfill the issues raised by other council members. Rotenizer started his tenure in the tourism job late 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 to hopefully prompt other council members to drop the issue. “I mean, we got new leadership, he’s trying to get help.”

Rotenizer, who is slated to appear before Christiansburg council next month, said there’s a great deal going on with the program that’s “not all on the surface.”

For example, Rotenizer spoke about representing the Montgomery County area at a multi-day event that will be put on by the International Bluegrass Music Association at the end of next month in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. He said he’ll man a booth, paid for by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, that will allow him to interact with many people and promote the county’s attractions, including Christiansburg’s.

Rotenizer said it would be unfortunate if Christiansburg pulled out of the agreement.

“It’s basically ‘united we stand.’ Our strength is in working together. We need to be working together, the two towns and the county,” said Rotenizer, who also noted the effects of the pandemic on tourism.

Verniel said Christiansburg and other parts of the county often benefit even if people from outside the area come here due to an event in Blacksburg or at Virginia Tech.

“They don’t really see the boundaries,” he said, adding that they might come to the area for something in Blacksburg but will stay and eat in Christiansburg.

Verniel pointed to other activities such as Tech sporting events, which he said often leads to hotels across the entire Montgomery County area to fill up.

“Structured tourism development is much more than the posting of social media and website content – ​​you don’t paint the trim on a new house before the foundation has been built,” Rotenizer wrote in an email.

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