BUCKHANNON – The first and only person to ever lead the Upshur County Convention & Visitors Bureau since it was reconstituted nearly 12 years ago is stepping down from her position later this year.
Laura Meadows told the UCCVB Board of Directors she was resigning effective March 31. After more than a decade in her position, Meadows said there were “many different levels” involved in her decision to move on from the tourism and marketing organization.
“One is, I’ve been here for 12 years, and at a certain point, you start thinking, ‘Maybe I’d like to try something different,’” she said. “Also, it’s a good time to let somebody else come in with their own vision. I think it’s going to be good for the CVB, and I think it’ll be good for Buckhannon to get a fresh perspective on how to really sell our area. I also have my two little boys, and summers are fun with them, but I’m always working, so it’s always a juggle. I’ve reached this opportunity in my personal life to be able to take a few months off, so I’m going to be able to take that time off with my kids and have a summer with them.”
Meadows plans to enjoy the sunny months and begin searching for something new in August or September.
“And everybody asks, ‘What?’ and I say, ‘I have no clue,’” she said. “I’m just kind of rolling with it, but I’m excited for a change.”
An Upshur County native who married her high school sweetheart and graduated from Fairmont State University with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, Meadows said when she accepted the executive director position nearly 12 years ago, it was her dream job. She had known that since a senior-year sales class at FSU had required students to sell a product or service.
“I chose recreation/tourism for West Virginia, and through that project, I came to think, ‘This is pretty awesome,’” she recalled. “I was a senior and I thought, this would be such a great career path because I was that person who always wanted to stay in West Virginia. I didn’t want to leave; I feel like we have so many good things about our state. I wanted to be a part of all that warm and fuzzy and positive stuff that we have in our state, so when I graduated, I had in my mind that I would love to do something that bettered our state, and whenever this came up, it was just perfect.”
There’s been plenty she’s loved about the position: seeing marketing and advertising campaigns come together into a final, finished product; collaborating with other entities working for the betterment of the area; and introducing newcomers to Buckhannon’s thriving downtown and the outdoor recreational opportunities that abound farther out in Upshur County.
“It’s really fun because this is the type of job where you can just go in our front room, sit down and talk and you can really build relationships that way,” she said.
Meadows guided the agency through one of the most challenging tourism environments in recent memory: the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The first year, nobody knew what was happening and you just kind of made it through,” Meadows said. “The second year, I feel like we were waiting for things to reestablish themselves, and then as we’re coming up on year three, we’ve kind of been holding our breath and waiting for things to normalize, but they haven’t and I don’t project them to get back to what they were.”
The vast majority of the CVB’s funding comes from the hotel-motel tax, which dipped dramatically with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Combined with long-term changes in the local hotel landscape, the funding shortfall has limited the CVB’s ability to promote the area and advertise.
On top of that, new legislation aimed at maintaining oversight of CVBs’ finances now delineates – in hard lines – how their money must be spent, with 40 percent dedicated to salaries, 20 percent to operating expenses and 40 percent to marketing and advertising. CVBs must also submit their financial statements to the W.Va. State Auditor’s Office annually.
Meadows said with the reduction in hotel/motel tax revenue, it’s no longer feasible to allocate 40 percent of the CVB’s budget to marketing and advertising because there are so many operating and overhead costs, many associated with the Event Center at Brushy Fork, which the agency oversees.
“[The event center] just takes a lot more money, so it throws our ratios – those percentages – out of balance,” she said.
Plus, CVBs must be accredited to receive future funding via hotel/motel tax, and the reaccreditation process happens once every three years.
“We’ve always been accredited, but the accreditation process looks at all aspects of your organization and it’s not the only component, but one component that’s looked at is the budget, and that’s a major one,” Meadows explained. “So, as we stand right now, I don’t think we would pass accreditation because we’re not advertising like we should; all of our funding and our focus goes into the Event Center, and it means the CVB is kind of falling behind.”
Because of that, Meadows feels it is no longer possible for the CVB to continue operating the Event Center at Brushy Fork without risking a loss of accreditation. Operating the Event Center has been a hallmark of the organization’s duties since the new West Virginia National Guard Armory on Brushy Fork Road opened in the fall of 2014 with a public event-hosting space.
“A lot of different players made the Event Center happen – city council, the Upshur County Development Authority, and the Guard,” Meadows said. “It got built, and we were handed the agreement, and we kind of just jumped into it without truly knowing how we were going to operate it. We figured, ‘We’re just going to start going and we’re going to add pieces bit by bit and we’re just going to make it work,’ and we did. The Event Center is funny because it’s such a steep learning curve, and a lot of times you can’t teach certain things. You just have to experience it and then learn from that experience and know how you’ll address things differently in the future.”
In 2013, the City of Buckhannon took out a $765,000 loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cover the cost of constructing the public event space and makes monthly payments on the loan. Additionally, the city and National Guard have an operating agreement in which the city names the CVB as the tenant, which allows it to run the Event Center on a day-to-day basis.
“Part of the agreement is that we pay a monthly lease payment of $1,200 to the State of West Virginia, and we also have a full-time staff person dedicated to it as well as part-time staff people,” Meadows explained. Another aspect of the CVB’s agreement with the National Guard is the stipulation that 20 percent of each facility rental is funneled back into the Armory Managerial Committee.
The Event Center at Brushy Fork drew many successful events, from corporate retreats to local fundraisers, to Upshur County as it grew over the years — and then the pandemic hit, halting that momentum.
“It never was really financially self-sustaining,” Meadows said. “When the CVB had enough revenue to cover the Event Center, it balanced everything out. We were still able to market the area, the Event Center was operating and we could see the benefit from the Event Center.”
Facing the new post-pandemic reality, financing the Event Center has eroded the CVB’s capacity to do what it was created to do: market Buckhannon and Upshur County to potential visitors.
“Our role and our purpose is to promote, advertise and really sell tourism for Upshur County, so we do that through traditional advertising, online advertising, social media, public relations communications and that type of thing, but we also try to connect with other organizations and help with tourism development,” Meadows said. “I was talking to a new board member coming on and I told her that I would like to see the CVB help with the development of the tourism aspect, so for example, having a kayak rental company and trying to find these things that we need – that people are requesting – but that we don’t have and fill those gaps.”
Meadows said she thinks the board understands just how critical it is for the Event Center to find another way forward. As various groups work to chart a new path for the Event Center, Meadows feels a shift in management and divorcing from the Event Center will give the CVB a new lease on life.
“This is a really fun organization,” Meadows said. “I just had a new board member come in and when I was talking to her, I said, ‘You know, it makes me excited to see the CVB kind of start getting back to where it really truly should be with advertising — and it just being Buckhannon’s cheerleader.”