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Funding cuts led to CVB partnership

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a series about the relationships between the Randolph County CVB, the Randolph County Commission and Elkins City Council.

ELKINS — The partnership between the Randolph County Convention and Visitors Bureau and House Hunters Real Estate came about last year because the funding the CVB was receiving from Randolph County and the City of Elkins had been significantly decreased, officials said.

“We started talking with (House Hunters owner) Chris (Pudder) in January/February of (2019) about the possibility of partnering up, and the reason that happened was because we got cut in our funding by the city and the county,” Randolph CVB President Michelle Depp told The Inter-Mountain. “We were looking at our budgeting; we were looking at our options of what we could do and how long we could keep going on the funding allotment that we were given.

“We get no funding from any other source. We don’t fundraise. We don’t take memberships like the other organizations do. Our mission is simply to take those tax dollars and use those to put heads in beds — which is kind of our battle cry. Our job is to put heads in beds in hotels which then generates the revenue, which then comes back into both the city and the county, and then they split it up,” she said.

“We began looking at how we could be sustainable. We did some research into you know, if you go to Myrtle Beach or to a lot of vacation communities, you will see that their tourism agencies are partnered up with real estate agencies, and there’s always somebody selling timeshares, and the convention and visitors bureau happens to be partnered up with them,” Depp said. “So, we thought, ‘OK, this works other places. Why wouldn’t it work here?'”

The CVB’s Board of Directors’ voted last year to sell the building housing the CVB to Pudder, and the facility became home to both House Hunters and the CVB. The decision eventually resulted in both the Randolph County Commission and Elkins City Council voting to completely defund the CVB at the end of 2019.

Pudder told The Inter-Mountain that he had long wanted to have a visitors bureau in the House Hunters offices.

“I had wanted to form a partnership with a visitors center as far back as when it was located at the intersection by Hiawatha’s and I spoke to representatives there at the time and couldn’t because of deed restrictions, as I was told,” Pudder said. “My old location was on the Beverly Five-Lane. I still own that real estate.”

“I asked a real estate agent that works for me for the contact information of a board member and I reached out to them, scheduled a time to speak with them in person and look over the building and ultimately made a proposal that would financially make sense for the long term future of the CVB.”

Depp said the arrangement made good financial sense for the CVB.

“He gave us lifetime tenancy here,” she said. “We don’t pay any rent. So, that value is $7,000-$8,000 a year in rental that we’re not paying. We’re here as long as we exist and as long as we want to be here. We have a partnership with Chris.

“We also don’t have to pay the maintenance, the utilities or the insurance for this property, so that is a savings that we accrued. What we were trying to do was lessen as much overhead as possible so that we could continue our mission.

“Our partnership with Chris enabled us to eliminate that overhead to our organization so that we could take that money that we would’ve been spending in operational costs and put it into advertising and marketing — which is the mission of our organization,” Depp said.

Pudder said he worked with the CVB to make the arrangement financially beneficial for the agency.

“The Randolph County Convention and Visitors Bureau had already undergone a cut in funding and our business collaboration was a way for the CVB to stay afloat with the decreased funding and with the inclination that further decreases in funding were imminent; the CVB was left with limited options if they were to survive,” Pudder said.

“Being a native and businessman in the county, I can see the importance in growth of business and population; they work hand in hand in improving our county and community and the CVB is a cheerleader in this arena.

“I purchased the building from the CVB and accepted all responsibility for the building and gave them lifetime use of the building, free of charge. I think it’s important for the public to understand that this arrangement would allow for the CVB to use what little funding they did receive for payroll and marketing the county to out of state tourists and locals alike, as it should be,” he said.

Both Depp and Pudder declined to state how much the building was sold for. The Inter-Mountain was unable to locate the amount of the sale of the building or a deed for it in the Randolph County Clerk’s Office. Depp has said there is no deed for the building, which she says is considered personal property, not real estate.

A source that asked to remain anonymous indicated that the building had been valued at about $65,000, but was sold for less than $25,000.

The land the building is located on belongs to the state Division of Highways. The building has been at that location for about 10 years.

“We were looking at it from the perspective of if we ever needed to move the building, if we wanted to sell the building, like, if we had to close down shop, and the DOH required it to be moved, it was about $20,000 to move it,” Depp said. “So, you have to take that into consideration.

“So, whenever we talked about it, Chris said that he wanted to talk to the DOH because he wanted the location.

“Chris and I both feel like it’s been a great partnership,” she added. “We maintain our own phone system and our own internet system … They do not answer our phone, and we do not answer theirs.

We do not do anything with real estate at all.

“I know that there’s been a misconception that Chris is using our staff to run his business, which is not true … I know that there are definitely people who have come in here that had been looking for visitor information and ended up becoming a client of House Hunters. So, not only did that benefit tourism in Randolph County but also the economic value of selling a property, people coming here, paying property taxes. I think it’s a no-brainer, but maybe I see it differently.”

Pudder noted, “House Hunters Real Estate proudly shares the space with the Visitors Center and it has been well-received by our clients and visitors alike. There hasn’t been confusion by tourists and they haven’t been sent out blindly touring the city without receiving information they were seeking. Signage now reflects both businesses and will continue to in the future.”

Depp admitted the future for the CVB is unclear, now that it has been defunded by both the city and the county, but said officials hope to keep it afloat at least until the end of this fiscal year in June. However, she said Pudder definitely plans to have a visitors center at the House Hunter offices, one way or another.

“Chris intends to maintain a visitor’s center out here. How he plans to do that — I don’t know if he’s going to hire a staff person or if he’s going to continue to use his now-trained real estate agents,” she said. “I don’t know what his plan is for that, but he says he intends to have a visitor’s center.

“When we sold him the building, we sold him everything — all the contents, everything. So, basically, we just have to take our box of stuff (if the CVB stops operations). The brochures will still be here.”

The next article in this series will detail county and city officials’ reactions to the CVB/House Hunters partnership and look at the ways in which the situation may resolve.