Harriman OKs motel tax boost for Expo Center

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By Cindy Simpson

Harriman hotel owners know who helps pay their bills.

That’s why they’re supporting steps to help the Roane State Henry/Stafford East Tennessee Agricultural Exposition Center.

Roane State Community College President Gary Goff has asked area governments to increase their hotel/motel taxes, with the difference going to support the Expo. Despite cuts, he said the operation is still expecting a shortfall between $75,000-$100,000.

“It is not something we’d want to tackle if the hotel owners didn’t support it,” said Harriman Mayor Chris Mason last week following Harriman City Council’s vote to raise the city’s hotel/motel tax rate by 2 percent.

“They know it is viable to their business,” Mason added.

The tax increase has met resistance from other hotel and motel owners in Roane County, but Mason said Harriman’s hotel owners attended the council’s last workshop to show their support.

Other city officials agree they should do more to help the Expo Center thrive.

Councilman Lonnie Wright said people support helping the college.

“Most people I talk to think Roane County and the city should help Roane State more than we do,” he added.

Officials pointed to how much Anderson County and Oak Ridge raised to help support the Oak Ridge campus expansion.

While the council voted to raise the taxes, officials are leery of making any permanent designation of those tax dollars.

Instead, city officials talked about creating a tourism fund, with money generated going to the Expo Center as a gift.

That way, if an emergency comes up the money could go to that instead. Or, if the Expo Center becomes self-sufficient, the monies could go to other projects.

Officials even discussed the possibility of lowering the tax rate if it is no longer needed.

Councilman J.D. Sampson wants the county to put in more toward helping the center.

Roane County Commissioner Randy Ellis said the county is looking at doing something to contribute to “bridge the gap” between the estimated $56,000 that the additional 2 percent hotel tax in Harriman would generate and the $75,000 estimated shortfall for the Expo.

Harriman City Treasurer Charles Kerley pointed to ways the county benefits, including the county’s portion of sales tax revenue and property tax.

Students from all over Roane County attend Roane State.

“I think we all need to recognize how important it is to the whole county as a whole,” Kerley said.

Officials worry that asking the state to raise the tax may open an opportunity for the county to raise it as well.

“We don’t want to open Pandora’s box,” Councilman Buddy Holley said. “Let’s make sure we don’t do that.”

Councilman Chase Tedder wants to know why the facility, touted as the most popular of its kind in the state, is not able to make a profit.

“If the busiest arena in the state can’t pay their bills, something is wrong,” Tedder said.

He recommended someone from the Expo Center speak to council every year about the center’s needs.