Local leaders say tourism faces grim future

Brenda Leisy, Scotts Bluff Area Visitors Bureau

A local tourism official told Scotts Bluff County Commissioners Monday that it could take another 18 months before local tourism gets back to where it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Lower tourism numbers are starting to show up, although we won’t have an official number until the state releases it on May 22,” Scotts Bluff Area Tourism Director Brenda Leisy told commissioners. “In one month’s time, from the state’s standpoint, they’re down $254,000 down from where they were last year.”

She added that in 2020, the local tourism bureau will use up its surplus. By 2021, it will become a deficit.

Scotts Bluff Area Tourism has issued a statement in the wake of plunging lodging taxes due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Effective immediately, Scotts Bluff County Tourism will not be awarding any new capital improvement grants or promotional grants for a minimum of one year, but will maintain its current destination marketing plan.

“Scotts Bluff County Tourism will use the next year to evaluate the effectiveness of past grant awards and develop a metric based system for evaluating future grant requests,” the statement continued. “We will also watch industry trends to identify opportunities to drive tourism in Scotts Bluff County.”

Commissioners approved a proposal from the Old West Balloon Fest Committee to make this year’s event free to the public, people who are still dealing with the after-effects of a virus pandemic.

Committee member Hunter Kosman told the board that most of the expense to the public is $20 event passes for parking at the Old West Balloon Fest and the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon race, now in its second year locally. The events are scheduled this summer from Aug. 10-15.

To make that possible, Scotts Bluff County and both Cities of Scottsbluff and Gering would each contribute $10,000 to cover the expense. The committee is also asking the City of Mitchell for a $5,000 contribution.

At the May 4 meeting, commissioners told Kosman they would consider the proposal if the county had sufficient Keno funds available for the expense.

Kosman told the county board he has received positive support for the proposal from all three public entities since he last spoke with them two weeks ago.

Commissioners voted unanimously to approve their portion of the funding, contingent upon participation from the cities for this one-time only proposal.

The county board also approved a $60,000 Capital Improvement Grant from 23 Club Baseball for its new stadium project. The grant had already been approved, but a renewal became necessary when the project couldn’t be completed within a year. Nothing in the grant has been altered, but only had to be renewed.

During their Monday meeting, commissioners also discussed how to relax restrictions for public access to county buildings when most of the governor’s directed health measures expire on May 31, unless extended.

Both Gering and Scottsbluff are starting to relax their restrictions in letting people into government buildings. On Monday, Scottsbluff held its first in-person council meeting in several weeks.

“I’d like for us to consider the process of moving forward toward normalcy,” said Commissioner Mark Harris. “It could mean signage on the floor to remind people of the six-foot distancing rules.”

Commissioners agreed the process of reopening county buildings will proceed slowly. However, they plan to continue working toward that goal. That will include residents making appointments with county officials to come in and do business.

One item commissioners did approve was to have their next meeting on June 1 open to the public in the county commissioners’ chambers. Social distancing and other precautions will be in effect.

The meeting will continue to be carried via teleconference for those who want to participate, but not in person.

We're always interested in hearing about news in our community. Let us know what's going on!

Jerry Purvis is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9046 or emailed at jpurvis@starherald.com.

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