In 2015, the last year for which numbers are available, tourism spending in Johnston topped $221 million, a 3.2-percent bump over the year before. According to the Johnston County Visitors Bureau, early indications suggest 2016 will be even bigger.
The 2015 mark puts Johnston in the top quarter of North Carolina counties in tourism spending, at No. 21, said Visitors Bureau director Donna Bailey-Taylor.
“Out of 100, that’s pretty darn good,” she said told county commissioners last week.
Much of the county’s tourism is tied to the north-south vacation thoroughfare of Interstate 95, connecting the mid-Atlantic and northeast with the beaches of the south. The Visitors Bureau, which promotes tourism in Johnston, gets its funding from a 3-percent tax on room stays countywide and another 2 percent on room stays in the I-95 towns of Smithfield, Selma, Kenly and Benson. Last year, those hotel taxes raised $1.11 million.
Taylor said an early look at the 2016 data shows receipts up 16 percent over the year before. Far from sight-seeing or R&R, Bailey-Taylor said those displaced by Hurricane Matthew were largely responsible for that boost in revenue.
“Hurricane Matthew was a devastating event, but our hotels were sold out for about two months,” she said. “So those revenues are pushing up revenues for this year.”
With a fresh groundbreaking on a new hotel in Benson and recent development along I-95 in the Smithfield, Bailey-Taylor said hotel receipts should stay steady.
Somehow, the peak of summer isn’t Johnston County’s top time for tourism. Hotel receipts give that honor to April, for which the Visitors Bureau credits Easter and spring break travel. July, May and June are the next busiest months.
In an effort to drum up online eyes on Johnston, the Visitors Bureau invited four bloggers to come to the county. The bureau put the bloggers up for four days in the county, resulting in seven online articles and half a million impressions across the major social media platforms.
Commissioner Keith Branch asked about the Visitors Bureau’s cash balance, which county finance director Chad McLamb said at last glance stood at around $700,000, or about 60 percent of the group’s operating expenses.
Taylor said the Visitors carried such a large savings because in the past it had wanted to purchase an independent office and had saved for a number of years. She said $250,000 belongs to the towns.
“At one point we were looking to buy property for the Visitors Bureau, to have a permanent home, so we were conservative and didn’t spend very much,” Bailey-Taylor said.
Branch asked if the large savings account was a red flag to the county’s auditor, but McLamb said the auditors were aware of the bureau desire to purchase property.
In the tourism office’s annual report, the Visitors Bureau argued that without the $18 million in state and local taxes tied to tourism purchases, the households of Johnston County would see an additional $297 on family tax bills.