Pandemic or no pandemic, the numbers don’t lie – for the second year in a row, Warren County has grabbed the top spot in the state for growth in visitor spending, according to an annual report released by N.C. tourism officials.
The data comes from an annual study commissioned by Visit North Carolina, a unit of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.
Warren County Community and Economic Development Director Charla Duncan points to several reasons why her county has shown positive growth when other counties are posting negative figures, not the least of which is Warren County’s relative proximity to major cities like Richmond, VA and the Raleigh-Durham area, she told WIZS News.
“Warren County has opportunities for day trippers, weekenders, and repeat visitors, and our local economy benefits from that,” continued Duncan.
People tend to overlook the quality of life in a rural county, she said. It’s not less quality of life, but it is a different quality of life that Warren County offers, Duncan said. “I think that people have looked for that a little more over the past year or so. Folks are having a chance to understand what we know to be true.” There’s a lot going on, she said, “it’s just a different kind of thing going on around here.”
“We are fortunate that Warren County’s travel and tourism industry has been able to demonstrate such resilience during a difficult year,” Duncan said. “Individually, many of our businesses have certainly experienced similar challenges as other small businesses across America during this pandemic. The strength in Warren County, particularly during 2020, is that our natural and cultural assets are a stable, safe, and desirable resource for visitors.”
It may be challenging to discern whether the $49.6 million spent in Warren County in 2020 is from visitors, tourists or simply residents who are spending more time within Warren County, Duncan noted. It’s probably a mixture of all three groups.
Duncan said a quick look at sales tax figures show that spending in the county is going fairly well. Gas sales, food and beverage sales, as well as retail and certain recreational spaces all contribute to the numbers, but whether those sales can be tied to a true tourist or a true visitor may be more difficult to track, she said.
Despite this, Duncan said, “this is our second year in a row topping the state in growth. We saw a lot of growth between 2018 and 2019, and the pandemic wasn’t in play.”
Warren County was the only county in its region to see growth; all other counties in the North Central region saw a decrease in visitor spending. The region includes Chatham, Durham, Franklin, Granville, Harnett, Johnston, Lee, Orange, Person, Vance, and Wake counties, according to a press release from Warren County Manager Vincent Jones.
Of the $49.6 million related to visitor spending, $12 million came from lodging, $15.5 from food and beverage, $6.7 from recreation, $4.8 from retail, and $10.6 from transportation, according to the statement.
In addition, people who have vacation homes or retirement homes on both Kerr Lake and Lake Gaston may figure in the positive numbers for Warren County since the onset of the pandemic. “If they were going to be allowed to work from home, they were going to do it from their lake house,” Duncan said.
The appeal of agritourism and agribusiness also contributes, she said. For example, Seven Springs Winery near Norlina opened for business right about the time that the pandemic was shutting everything down.
“That business has been incredibly successful, despite challenges that face small businesses. People were looking for more things to do outside, she said, and Seven Springs provides that opportunity. “They opened up at a time when that was a sought-after thing,” she added. “They’re a great asset for us. They are achieving their dream – they have a great story to tell.”
“It is great to see this positive news, as we adjust to the long-term impact of the pandemic,” stated County Manager Vincent Jones. “We hope that this new energy we are seeing as people discover and rediscover the charm of Warren County is sustained going forward.”
According to Visit NC date, the Warren County travel and tourism industry directly employees 231 people; this is an increase in employment related to visitor spending since 2019. The total payroll generated by the tourism industry in Warren County in 2020 was $10.1 million.
In 2020, state tax revenue generated in Warren County totaled $1.6 million through state sales and excise taxes, and taxes on personal and corporate income. Approximately $3.4 million in local taxes were generated from sales and property tax revenue from travel-generated and travel-supported businesses.
The breakdown by county is available at partners.visitnc.com/economic-impact-studies. The study was prepared for Visit North Carolina by Tourism Economics in collaboration with the U.S. Travel Association.
Warren County has seen an increase in visitor spending every year since 2016.