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Federal tourism aid funds gas stations, garbage cans, jazz


Located along a remote stretch of Highway 395, the Fort Independence Travel Plaza advertises a dozen gas pumps, clean restrooms…

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

The facility, which provides income for the 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 space for cultural displays and locally made products.

It is one of hundreds of tourism-related projects across the country that are receiving a combined $2.4 billion from the U.S. Rescue Plan, according to an Associated Press analysis of funds coming from last year’s sweeping coronavirus relief law.

The money pays 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 certain states — sometimes in direct competition with each other.

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

Despite high fuel prices, Americans still seem to be hitting the road. After falling at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, U.S. travel spending is projected to top $1 trillion this year — a 45% increase from 2020.

That’s in line with similar increases in the budgets of state tourism offices, which have recovered to pre-pandemic levels thanks to federal aid.

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

The next pandemic relief law signed by President Joe Biden expanded on that. America’s rescue plan included $750 million in grants for tourism, travel and outdoor recreation through the federal Office of Economic Development. It also included the tourism, travel and hospitality sector among dozens of eligible targets — along with health, housing and unemployment programs — for a $350 billion pool of flexible assistance directed at state, local, territorial and tribal governments.

Those governments budgeted more than $1.6 billion from these 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 U.S. Treasury data.

Those tourism projects include $425,000 in Portland to replace 200 trash cans with ones that have larger holes and a harder-to-damage surface made of metal slats or wire mesh. The city cited a “significant increase in trash, graffiti and vandalism” during the pandemic, arguing that the new trash cans “will create a safer and more welcoming environment for visitors to our parks,” according to a description in the Treasury Department’s data.

Nashville, known for its country music scene, committed $750,000 to reach “culturally diverse visitors.” Among other things, it helps finance the renovation of a once-famous venue for black music, subsidizes concerts by the Fisk University Choir and pays for the annual Jazz and Blues Festival held in July.

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

Of the tourism grants issued through the Economic Development Authority, $510 million was shared between states and territories according to a formula that took into account job losses in their leisure and hospitality sectors. An additional $240 million has been allocated for competitive grants that have yet to be awarded.

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

“Part of tourism is getting from point A to point B, and one of the stops along the way is our reservation,” explained Tribal Vice Chair Alice Lee. “If 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 aging 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 rooms and a pavilion for the cross. -national 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 dynamic” that generates nearly $1 million a year in economic activity.

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

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

Oregon used a $9.1 million grant to create promotional videos and landscape photos that could be incorporated into telecasts of this month’s world track and field championships in Eugene. International broadcasts could generate $224 million to $374 million in visitor spending and “drive economic development and opportunity for decades to come,” the Oregon Tourism Commission said in a grant plan submitted to federal officials.

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

But “as you provide more flexibility,” Moulton said, “you run the risk of using money in ways that you don’t think are the most efficient.”

The city of Fort Worth, Texas, has used $52 million from its flexible America’s Rescue Plan to expand its convention center. Of that, $40 million was categorized as tourism aid in the 2021 report submitted to the Treasury Department.

The Treasury revised its rules in January to discourage big spending on convention centers and stadiums, saying big capital spending to help the travel and tourism industry was “out of proportion to addressing the negative economic impact of the pandemic.”

Fort Worth is moving forward with the project anyway. The city reclassified the aid as replacing income lost during the pandemic — the category with the most flexibility under Treasury rules.

California received the largest grants for tourism, about $46 million. The state sent all of that — plus an additional $95 million in flexible federal pandemic aid — to its nonprofit tourism organization, 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.

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

Meanwhile, Missouri is casting a wider net into the upper Midwest and South. With a two-thirds increase in its tourism budget, Missouri plans to expand advertising beyond contiguous states 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 see as competition, it was important for us to up our game,” said Missouri Tourism Director Stephen Fouts.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or distributed.

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