Federal tourism aid funds gas stations, trash cans and jazz

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

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

It’s one of hundreds of tourism-related projects nationwide collectively receiving about $2.4 billion from the U.S. bailout, according to an Associated Press analysis of funds from the sweeping tourism bill. last year’s coronavirus relief.


The money is used to pay 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 in some states – sometimes in competition directly with each other.

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

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

That matches a similar increase in state tourism board budgets, which rebounded to pre-pandemic levels with federal assistance.

A coronavirus relief bill signed by former President Donald Trump has opened up the possibility of federal money being used for local tourism projects.

The subsequent Pandemic Relief Act signed by President Joe Biden expanded that. The U.S. bailout contained $750 million for subsidies 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 healthcare, housing and unemployment programs – for a $350 billion flexible aid pool. sent to state, local, territorial and tribal governments.

These governments had budgeted more than $1.6 billion of these flexible funds for about 550 tourism, travel and hospitality projects as of the end of March, according to an Associated Press analysis of data recently released by the US Treasury. .

These tourism projects include $425,000 in Portland to replace 200 trash cans with ones that have larger openings and harder-to-break surfaces, such as metal slats or wire mesh. The city cited “a substantial increase in the amount of trash, graffiti and vandalism” during the pandemic, saying the new trash cans “will create a safer and more welcoming environment for visitors to our parks,” according to a description of the Treasure. Department data.

Nashville, known for its country music scene, has allocated $750,000 to reach “culturally diverse visitors.” It helps fund renovations at a once prominent black music venue, subsidize choir concerts at Fisk University, and pay for an annual jazz and blues festival that takes place in July, among other things.

The goal is to “build the other genres without pushing country music down,” said Butch Spyridon, CEO of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.

Of the tourism subsidies provided through the Economic Development Authority, $510 million was distributed among states and territories based on a formula that takes into account job losses in their recreation and hospitality sectors. . An additional $240 million has been set aside for competitive grants, which are still being given out.

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

“Part of tourism is A to B, and one of the stops along the way is our reservation,” Tribal Vice President Alisa Lee explained. “When we’ve been able to educate people about our community, our tribe and our culture, that’s a form of tourism.”

Other competitive grants included $2.2 million to help replace old snowmaking equipment at the Frost Fire Park ski resort in North Dakota, $1.6 million to help build a new museum Mardi Gras 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 “turn it into a recreational dynamo” that generates nearly $1 million a year in economic activity.

Several states have also expected big returns on their federal tourism dollars, according to grant plans obtained by the AP through an open records request.

Alabama plans to spend nearly $2.7 million to build three boat docks in reservoirs along the Coosa River. The state said regional fishing tournaments can draw $200,000 into an economy and national tournaments up to $1 million.

Oregon used a $9.1 million grant to help produce promotional videos and scenery images that could be incorporated into television broadcasts of the World Championships in Athletics held this month in Eugene. International broadcasts could bring in between $224 million and $374 million in visitor spending and “spur economic development and opportunity for decades to come,” the Oregon Tourism Commission said in a grant plan submitted to authorities. federal.

Tourism projects generally appear to be an appropriate use of federal pandemic relief funds, as the industry was initially one of the hardest hit, said Sean Moulton, senior policy analyst at the Project on Government Oversight for Purpose. non-profit.

But “as you give more flexibility,” Moulton said, “you run the risk that the money will be used in a way that, in retrospect, you say wasn’t the most efficient.”

The city of Fort Worth, Texas, has earmarked $52 million from its flexible US bailout to expand its convention center. Of that amount, $40 million was classified as tourism aid in a 2021 year-end report submitted to the Treasury Department.

The Treasury revised its rules in January to discourage big spending at convention centers and stadiums, saying big capital spending to help the travel and tourism industries is “not reasonably commensurate with addressing the impacts negative economic effects of the pandemic”.

Fort Worth is going ahead with the project anyway. The city has reclassified aid as replacing income lost during the pandemic – a category with the most flexibility under Treasury rules.

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

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

As Michigan targets tourists in the neighboring Great Lakes region, Ohio is responding by expanding advertising to 11 new markets, including other Michigan cities.

Missouri, meanwhile, is casting a wider net in the upper Midwest and south. Thanks to a two-thirds increase in its tourism budget, Missouri plans to expand advertising beyond its border states to reach potential travelers from Alabama, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin.

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

About Bobby F. Lopez

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