2023 Tourism Product Development Fund Project Recipients Recognized;
Five Industry Leaders Honored with Explore Asheville Superstar Award;
Industry Panelists Share Updates on New Happenings and Offerings

ASHEVILLE N.C. (Feb. 2, 2024) Nearly 400 community leaders and tourism industry partners gathered Wednesday afternoon at the new Embassy Suites by Hilton Asheville Downtown for Explore Asheville’s first partner event of 2024, The Year Ahead. The program highlighted the latest investments awarded through the Tourism Product Development Fund (TPDF), the Asheville Superstar Award ceremony, and four community panel discussions aligned with Explore Asheville’s strategic imperatives.

“In 2022, visitors contributed nearly $3 billion to our community and local businesses,” said Explore Asheville’s President & CEO Vic Isley, highlighting the importance of welcoming visitors to our community. “The authority’s role is to inspire visitors to bring net new dollars through the front door of a wide variety of local businesses to sustain the livelihoods of our residents. Nearly 2,000 Explore Asheville partner businesses and organizations both serve and benefit from guests to our community.”

Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority (BCTDA) Chair Brenda Durden and TPDF Committee Chair Jim Muth presented large ceremonial checks to 2023 TPDF recipients. The City of Asheville Vice Mayor Sandra Kilgore accepted a $1.586 million check for the Harrah’s Cherokee Center Asheville upgrades. Buncombe County Commissioner Terri Wells and Parks and Recreation Project Manager Lynn Pegg accepted a $4.054 million check for Phase II of the Enka Recreation Destination. WNC Ag Center General Manager Sean McKeon accepted a $500,000 check for equine renovations to the state facility. These three major tourism-related projects expand the authority’s portfolio of 46 projects totaling more than $86 million in investments since the fund’s inception in 2001.

Sheriff Quentin Miller, Chief Michael Lamb, J Chong of J Chong Eats, Reggie Tidwell of Curve Theory, and Jack Benton of Parks Hospitality Group received top honors for their leadership in the local travel and hospitality community during the Explore Asheville Superstar award ceremony. Each recognized community partner received a stained glass Explore Asheville award, handcrafted locally by Asheville artist Lindsey Barr of Mountain Magic Glass, demonstrating Explore Asheville’s commitment to supporting local creators and makers.

Following the awards ceremony, fast-paced panel discussions, aligned with Explore Asheville’s strategic imperatives, touched on exciting new developments and strategic partnerships that grow our economy and attract diverse audiences through local arts and culture.

“We are not just renovating a building,” said Anthony Thomas, board chair of the YMI Cultural Center. “We are revitalizing an organization that is the crown jewel in the Asheville community. Thank you to the TDA, the first organization at the table with $800,000 for this important endeavor.”

Panelists also spoke to industry-wide efforts to ascend Asheville and Buncombe County’s outdoor offerings into the national spotlight by hosting Adventure Travel Trade Association’s international conference, AdventureELEVATE, this July 11 to 13, and investing in open space projects that link recreational activities to local cultural landmarks.

“It’s incredible to see how many people flow all the way through the River Arts District down Amboy, said Executive Director of Riverlink Lisa Raleigh. Early counts at Karen Cragnolin Park, a 2022 TPDF investment, have seen “monthly usage of around 30,000, which are similar to what the city is counting over in the River Arts District by Lyman St.”

Isley noted, “When we’re together, we are Always Asheville.” That collective spirit shone through the afternoon’s program as nearly 400 dedicated partners exemplified the travel and hospitality industry’s unity and commitment to bettering our local community.

The event concluded with a lively reception featuring entertainment from DJs Phantom Pantone and Mereset and a photobooth by Indulge Images in the newly opened restaurant E’Terie.

2024 Explore Asheville Superstar Recipients

Sheriff Quentin Miller of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department— A native of Buncombe County, Sheriff Miller’s leadership helps keep Buncombe County safe for residents, workers, customers, and guests. Most recently, the sheriff held listening sessions with downtown workers and businesses, resulting in collaboration with Chief Lamb and the APD to augment weekend public safety coverage downtown.

Chief Michael Lamb of the Asheville Police Department—Another Asheville native, Chief Lamb, has served the community for more than 20 years at the Asheville Police Department. Since being named interim police chief, Mike has worked expeditiously with neighborhoods, hotel owners, and operators to address the recent spate of car window breakings that impacted residents and visitors alike.

J Chong of J Chong Eats — J’s participation in Explore Asheville partner events, media content partnerships, and contributing freely and earnestly to the LGBTQIA+ working group are some of the many reasons why J is recognized this year.

Reggie Tidwell of Curve Theory — In addition to being a long-term rock star content partner, Reggie is recognized for his involvement in creating the logo and contributing to visual content for the new Black Cultural Heritage Trail.

Jack Benton of Parks Hospitality Group — Jack’s steadfast involvement in partner events— from meeting planner familiarization (FAM) events to tradeshow participation and supporting partner events makes him worthy of this honor

Strategic Imperative Panel Discussions

Delivering Balanced & Sustainable Growth Panelists

  • Tina Kinsey, vice president of Marketing, PR, and Air Service Development PR, and Air Service Development at the Asheville Regional Airport
  • Jack Benton, area director of sales and marketing at Parks Hospitality Group
  • Clark Duncan, senior vice president of economic development at the Asheville Chamber of Commerce

Encouraging Safe & Responsible Travel Panelists

  • Lisa Raleigh, executive director of RiverLink
  • Tina Porter, senior sales manager at Explore Asheville
  • Devin DeHoll, co-owner of Cultivate Climbing, Asheville Adventure Company, and The Outpost

Engaging and Inviting More Diverse Audiences Panelists

  • Catherine Mitchell, executive director of River Front Development Group
  • J Chong, chef and owner of J Chong Eats
  • Anthony Thomas, board chair of the YMI Cultural Center

Promoting and Supporting Asheville’s Creative Spirit Panelists

  • Melody Rigdon, vice president of marketing at The Biltmore
  • Candace Riley, executive director of the North Carolina Glass Center
  • Jennifer Pickering, founder and executive director of LEAF Global Arts

Other News Announced at the Event 

  • The Embassy Suites by Hilton Asheville Downtown will open a rooftop restaurant in March.
  • RiverLink’s next step for Karen Cragnolin Park is to restore the meadow, making it the largest pollinator meadow on the Amboy Adventure corridor and perhaps in the City of Asheville.
  • Cultivate Climbing Gym will expand its operations by opening a 13,000-square-foot climbing gym at the former RAD Skatepark in the River Arts District.
  • Catherine Mitchell of the River Front Development Group announced their next project is to develop a digital Stephens Lee High School Museum incorporating stories and memorabilia from previous alumni.
  • The YMI Cultural Center is set to reopen in late spring.
  • The North Carolina Glass Center plans to open its second facility in Black Mountain this August, doubling its footprint and enabling it to serve more artists, visitors, and rural residents.
  • LEAF’s signature event in October will feature Sheila E, the former drummer for Prince.

For a PDF of The Year Ahead's presentation, please click here.


Ashley Greenstein 
(828) 318-8960

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