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Tourism spending takes big leap locally / September 12, 2019
Halifax County’s tourism economy grew by 6.9 percent in 2018, the sixth highest growth rate in Virginia, as visitors contributed $52 million in estimated spending for the year.

The data, from the U.S. Travel Association, puts Halifax well ahead of the statewide average for tourism growth. Virginia saw visitor spending increase by 4.4 percent last year, to $25.8 billion, as travelers opened their pocketbooks at venues around the state.

In Halifax County, “the reality is, everyone is doing their part, adding their piece to the pie,” said Linda Shepperd, county tourism director. She said the 6.9 percent gain locally was broad based, with racetracks, cultural attractions, state parks, restaurants, motels and hotels and local shops all doing their part to attract out-of-town interest.

“All the people who do these things, they’re the ones driving the numbers,” Shepperd said. “It’s an across the board increase.”

To arrive at its estimates, the U.S. Travel Association looks at a range of economic indicators — from the value of second homes to retail sales to gas receipts — and determines the direct and indirect economic impacts of people traveling in from 50 miles away or further. The USTA data suggests that tourism supports 578 jobs in Halifax County, a gain of 14 since 2017, when that job number stood at 564.

Payroll dollars attributable to tourism added up to almost $11.5 million in 2018, rising from $10.8 million in 2017. Shepperd said tourism spending is a significant source of income for local businesses, especially restaurants and lodges, which in turn translates into more jobs for county residents.

“What they’re saying [USTA] is that if we didn’t have visitors, we’d still have restaurants, but they’d have a lot fewer employees,” she said. “If you didn’t have people coming in from out of town, how many businesses could take a 25 percent hit?”

Shepperd said Virginia International Raceway is “probably the single largest driver of out-of-town visits” but she also cited the importance of South Boston Speedway, state parks, The Prizery, local restaurants and other ventures in pushing up the county’s tourist numbers. She expressed surprise at one data point from the USTA report: the growing profile of Halifax County as a wedding destination.

That points to the importance of venues such as Berry Hill Resort and smaller bed and breakfast inns, such as SunnyView 1894, which opened this year at the former site of Patrick Henry Boys Home, and Oak Grove Plantation, among others. VIR has added event space that also should attract more bridal events to the county, Shepperd said.

Overall, local tourism spending rose to $52,003,678 in 2018, USTA estimates. Halifax County’s tourism spending in 2017 was $48,661,229.

Visitor spending in 2018 generated roughly $3 million in tax revenue for the state and county, with state tax receipts climbing to $1,963,992 and Halifax County taking in $953,760.

While the local revenue haul includes tax receipts from meals and lodging taxes, the state’s take is based on a smaller subset of levies — primarily, sales and excise taxes. With travel to Halifax County bringing $2 million into state coffers, largely due to sales tax collections, Shepperd said the implications are obvious for the sales tax referendum that will be on the ballot in November, asking residents to approve a 1-cent local levy for school capital improvements.

The penny increase would go on top of the state’s existing 5.3 cent sales tax, with the state sending a one cent share of the revenue to Halifax County.

“We’re putting together the numbers now,” said Shepperd of the sales taxes that outsiders would contribute towards an upgraded high school if the 1-cent tax is approved by voters. She said an estimate of around $400,000 may be “conservative.”

“Ten percent of the people who shop at WalMart do not live in Halifax County,” Shepperd added.

Mitzi McCormick, president of the Halifax County Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber is “really excited to see these types of numbers increase, and I think it’s due to a number of things.” The Virginia Cantaloupe Festival, hosted by the Chamber, is testament to the importance of tourism dollars, she said: “We’re at about 30 percent of out-of-towners at the festival. Those are people staying the night at Berry Hill and at all the motels in Halifax County.”

McCormick also said she was impressed with the turnout for the August IMSA weekend at VIR, the Alton road racing course’s largest event of the year:

“There were so many people there, that was an amazing event,” she said. “I attended the IMSA race and spoke to Connie [Connie Nyholm, track president] and she thought it was the biggest crowd they’d ever had. We saw vehicles with license plates up and down the East Coast.”

While the percentage increase in Halifax County tourism outpaced that of most areas, the county’s $52 million tourism economy is smaller than some of its neighbors.

With two large recreational lakes and an interstate highway, Mecklenburg County has a $144 million tourism economy, as measured by visitor spending. Spending in the City of Danville is $92 million, and in Pittsylvania County it’s nearly $81 million. Tourism spending in Mecklenburg rose by 5.2 percent in 2018.

The sharpest increase in tourism last year in Virginia happened in Prince Edward County, which posted growth of 12.7 percent, bringing the county’s outside spending to nearly $26 million. Sheppard credited High Bridge State Park, Farmville’s two colleges and its downtown shops and restaurants with pushing up Prince Edward’s numbers.

She added that Halifax County continues to have room for improvement — citing sports tourism as an example — but the trend in 2018 is encouraging.

“I wish everything we had in Halifax County increased by 6.9 percent,” she said.

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