Christiansburg officials are questioning the city’s participation in the regional tourism initiative | Government and politics

Several City Council members are raising questions about whether Christiansburg should continue to pay into a tourism program they fund along with the city of Blacksburg and Montgomery County.

Christiansburg’s governing body, in a 4-2 vote last month, approved filing a notice of intent to withdraw from the agreement they entered into with Blacksburg and the county to establish and implement the program. The agreement requires the participating enterprise to provide notice 12 months before a formal decision on whether or not to withdraw from the agreement.

“However, the City Council plans to revisit this decision in two months with Tourism Executive Director David Rotenizer [it] wanted to provide the notice of intent at this time,” read the notice, which was signed by Christiansburg City Manager Randy Wingfield and addressed to Montgomery County Administrator Craig Meadows and Blacksburg City Manager Mark Verniel.

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Rotenizer heads the Montgomery County Blacksburg Christiansburg Regional Tourism Authority, an organization that is funded by a portion of the funds each of those three localities receives from its lodging tax.

Officials outside of Christiansburg have expressed concern about how regional tourism efforts could be affected if the city later decides to back out of the agreement.

Such a move would also be unusual because Christiansburg is typically a key partner in a number of New River Valley organizations and services that have cross-community membership.

Verniel said the county and its two cities are pooling their resources, allowing 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 together on tourism,” said Blacksburg’s city manager. “If Christiansburg pulls out … their portion of the funding will be gone 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 came from Blacksburg, $164,333 from Christiansburg and $26,000 from the county, according to figures provided by Rotenizer last week.

Although the county provides the smallest share of the funding, Rothenizer said the value of the support area departments regularly provide his office far exceeds that amount.

The tourist office works to promote the attractions of the area. 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 just yet, it’s a key first step the locality needs to take if it wants to eventually end regular funding for the tourism office.

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

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

When the need to use taxpayer money in Christiansburg in the best possible way was brought up, Barber said the housing funds don’t necessarily come from the city’s residents.

“This 1% of lodging tax revenue is not the money of our citizens, the taxpayers,” the mayor said. “These are people who come here, stay here and can stay here and use it as a hub to go to Floyd. … It doesn’t cost our taxpaying citizens a dime.”

“Unless you are [a resident] if you stay at a Holiday Inn or Hampton Inn three nights a week, then you pay none of this tax.

Barber cited some numbers to highlight the amount of revenue the lodging tax has generated for the city over the years. He said it costs the city an average of about $1.7 million a year, an amount he described as not a bad deal considering the money the city gives the regional tourism office.

Barber also brought up previous reports submitted by Rotenizer’s predecessor that tracked the tourism dollars generated in Montgomery County each year. The mayor said if he remembers correctly, several million dollars will follow Christiansburg.

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

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

“At the end of the day, we’re using Christiansburg’s tax base,” he said. “There’s a certain responsibility we owe to our merchants who collect this.”

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

Wilson pointed to part of the site for downtown Christiansburg and Blacksburg. For Christiansburg, the link is coupled with an image of a structure at Sinkland Farms, which he says is not part of downtown and isn’t even in the city limits.

“This is not downtown Christiansburg,” said Wilson, who had met with Rothenizer months ago to discuss the issue. “I think we deserve better service. Sometimes there are ways to ask for better service.”

Wilson said this past week that he views the partnership as a valuable asset, but argued that it is not being administered at the level he believes is adequate for the city.

Showalter also called for improvements to the regional tourism website.

Councilwoman Johanna Hicks, who in the past has questioned other multi-site organizations of which Christiansburg is a member, pointed to some of the promotional work the locality has done on its own, and in particular city spokeswoman Christina Edney, whom the council member took issue with during the call last month could possibly get a raise with the money given to the regional tourism office.

“I think we have to see if it’s worth the money,” Hicks said last month. “That’s a lot of money from our city’s budget, and I personally think we can do this work internally.”

However, there are some council members who strongly oppose the proposal for Christiansburg to withdraw from the tourism agreement.

Council member Sam Bishop, who voted against the notice, said Rotenizer has not yet been given enough time to comply with the issues raised by other council members. Rotenizer started working in tourism 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 hopefully get other council members to drop the issue. “I mean we have new management, he’s trying to get help.”

Rothenizer, who is scheduled to appear before the Christiansburg council next month, said there is a lot going on with the program that “is not all on the surface.”

For example, Rotenizer talked about representing the Montgomery County area 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 running 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.

Rotenizer said it would be a shame if Christiansburg backed out of the agreement.

“Essentially, it’s ‘united, we stand.’ Our strength lies in working together. We have to work together, the two cities 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 because of 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 they’ll stay to eat in Christiansburg.

Verniel pointed to other activities such as technical sports events, which he said often result in hotels being filled throughout the Montgomery County area.

“Structured tourism development is much more than posting content on social media and websites — you don’t paint the siding on a new house before the foundation is built,” Rotenizer wrote in an email.

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