Baltimore Sun

Pandemic relief cash aids tourism

States using federal funds on hundreds of travel projects

- By David A. Lieb

Located along a remote stretch of Highway 395, the Fort Independen­ce Travel Plaza touts a dozen gas pumps, clean restrooms and made-to-order meals for travelers visiting California’s Eastern Sierra.

The facility, which provides revenue for a Paiute Indian tribe, is about to quadruple in size thanks to an $8 million federal grant that will help build a new gas station with room for cultural displays and locally made products.

It’s one of hundreds of tourism-related projects nationwide that are collective­ly getting about $2.4 billion from the American Rescue Plan, according to an Associated Press analysis of funds flowing from last year’s wide-ranging coronaviru­s relief law.

The money is paying for graffiti-resistant trash cans in Portland, Oregon, culturally diverse music festivals in Nashville, Tennessee, sports facilities in various cities and new marketing campaigns to attract tourists to particular states — sometimes in direct competitio­n with one another.

“Our goal is to get people traveling again. Period,” said Dave Lorenz, chairman of the National Council of State Tourism Directors and the Michigan travel director.

Despite high fuel prices, Americans do seem to be hitting the road. After a plunge at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, U.S. travel spending this year is projected to top $1 trillion — up 45% from its 2020 low point, according to the U.S. Travel Associatio­n.

That correspond­s with a similar increase in state tourism office budgets,

which have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels thanks to the federal aid.

A coronaviru­s relief law signed by former President Donald Trump opened the potential for federal money to be used for local tourism projects.

The subsequent pandemic relief law signed by President Joe Biden expanded that. The American Rescue Plan contained $750 million for grants for tourism, travel and outdoor recreation through the federal Economic Developmen­t Authority. It also included the tourism, travel and hospitalit­y sector among dozens of eligible uses — alongside health care, housing and unemployme­nt programs — for a $350 billion pool of flexible aid sent to state, local, territoria­l and tribal government­s.

Those government­s had budgeted more than $1.6 billion from those flexible funds for about 550 tourism, travel and hospitalit­y projects

as of the end of March, according to an Associated Press analysis of recently released data from the U.S. Treasury.

Those tourism projects include $425,000 in Portland to replace 200 trash cans with ones that have larger openings and harder-to-deface surfaces made of such things as metal slats or wire mesh. The city cited “a substantia­l increase in the amount of trash, graffiti, and vandalism” during the pandemic,” according to a descriptio­n in the Treasury Department data.

Nashville, known for its country music scene, allotted $750,000 to reach “culturally diverse visitors.” That’s helping fund renovation­s at a once-prominent Black music venue, subsidize choir concerts at Fisk University and pay for an annual jazz and blues festival occurring in July, among other things.

Of the tourism grants awarded through the Economic

Developmen­t Authority, $510 million was divided among states and territorie­s through a formula that took into account job losses in leisure and hospitalit­y. An additional $240 million was set aside for competitiv­e grants, which are still being doled out.

One of those grants went to the Fort Independen­ce Indian Reservatio­n, a 220-member tribe that plans to add more than 60 jobs at its enlarged travel center.

“Part of tourism is getting from A to B, and one of the stops along the way is our reservatio­n,” explained tribal vice chair Alisa Lee. “When we have been able to educate people about our community, our tribe and our culture, that is a form of tourism.”

Other competitiv­e grants included $2.2 million to help replace old snowmaking equipment at Frost Fire Park ski resort in North Dakota, $1.6 million to help build a new Mardi Gras museum in

Louisiana and $1.2 million to build locker rooms, concession facilities and a pavilion for a cross-country course at Middle Georgia State University.

University President Christophe­r Blake said in a statement that the project has the potential “to transform it into a recreation­al dynamo” that generates nearly $1 million a year in economic activity.

Tourism projects generally seem like an appropriat­e use of the federal pandemic relief funds because the industry initially was one of the hardest hit, said Sean Moulton, a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.

But “as you give more flexibilit­y,” Moulton said, “you run the risk of the money being used in ways that in retrospect you say that wasn’t the most effective.”

The city of Fort Worth, Texas, has directed $52 million of its flexible American Rescue Plan money for an expansion of its convention center. Of that, $40 million was categorize­d as tourism aid in a 2021 yearend report submitted to the Treasury Department.

The Treasury revised its rules in January to discourage big spending on convention centers and stadiums, stating that large capital expenditur­es to aid the travel and tourism industries are “not reasonably proportion­al to addressing the negative economic impacts of the pandemic.”

Fort Worth is moving ahead anyway. The city reclassifi­ed the aid as replacemen­t for revenue lost during the pandemic — a category with the broadest flexibilit­y under Treasury rules.

California got the largest tourism grant allocation, about $46 million. The state directed all of that — plus an additional $95 million of flexible federal pandemic aid — to its nonprofit tourism entity, which conducts national and internatio­nal marketing.

Other states also have used the federal aid to try to draw visitors to their parks, shopping areas, restaurant­s and resorts.

While Michigan targets tourists in the neighborin­g Great Lakes region, Ohio is countering by expanding advertisin­g into 11 new markets, including additional Michigan cities.

Missouri, meanwhile, is casting a broader net into the upper Midwest and the South. Thanks to a twothirds increase in its tourism budget, Missouri is planning to expand advertisin­g to reach potential travelers from Alabama, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississipp­i, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin.

“In order to stay competitiv­e with the states that we consider competitio­n, it was going to be important for us to up our game,” Missouri Tourism Director Stephen Foutes said.

 ?? MARK HUMPHREY/AP ?? Mike Phillips, right, performs on July 23 at the Jefferson Street Jazz & Blues Festival in Nashville, Tenn. The city is funding the event and other music-related projects with money from last year’s wide-ranging coronaviru­s relief law.
MARK HUMPHREY/AP Mike Phillips, right, performs on July 23 at the Jefferson Street Jazz & Blues Festival in Nashville, Tenn. The city is funding the event and other music-related projects with money from last year’s wide-ranging coronaviru­s relief law.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States