Tourism. It's the state's third largest industry.
The governor and the Legislature have worked to expand the commission and look at creative ways to bring more outside people to the state to spend money. They are to be applauded for positive steps to change the image of Nebraska as just a flyover state.
Agriculture, manufacturing and tourism. Strange bedfellows competing for recognition and precious few promotion dollars – if any. Tourism leaders are toying with a few ideas and at least one state senator is expected to propose something during the next legislative session.
There is no denying that Nebraska has tourist attractions, from history to water sports, to other outdoor recreation. It’s a place to hunt, fish, bike, hike, explore. Museums are plentiful and range from classic cars to living history farms, art galleries and quilts to farm machinery and fur trading.
It’s not Minnesota, but lakes -- including McConaughy, Maloney, Johnson, Minatare and Harlan County Reservoir -- attract their share of people who want to ski, fish, swim or just relax.
It’s not Colorado, but I’d put the badlands and buttes of the Panhandle and Northwest Nebraska, and even the undulating Nebraska Sandhills up against the Rockies for beauty. I’ve seen the Snake and the Niobrara and the Dismal Rivers from the air. Pretty impressive.
It’s not New England, but the clusters of historic downtown buildings range from the old Courthouse Square in Auburn to the Haymarket in Lincoln, the Old Market in Omaha, and numerous recognized historic districts from Plattsmouth to Beatrice, Crete, Fremont, Hastings, Schuyler, Sidney and others. Brick streets, quaint shops and lots of special events beckon to locals and tourists alike.
Nebraska already has a so-called Turnback Tax, which allows for a percentage of state sales taxes generated by new and existing hotels near a convention center to be turned back to the city to help pay for the new facility. Cities that build arenas receive 70 percent of state sales taxes generated by nearby retailers. The remaining 30 percent is directed to a fund that provides development grants to smaller communities across the state.
Another tweak of that law might be in order next session, perhaps as a way to encourage partnerships between state and local governments to pay for new facilities, such as visitors' centers, or maintenance of local historic buildings. Tourism officials are also interested in so-called tourism improvement districts, in which local hotels and businesses agree to contribute money to a fund that promotes events and attractions in the area.
State Senator Dan Quick of Grand Island will likely take the lead on the tourism issue. He said he began researching tourism at the request of his local convention and visitors' bureau, which is seeking ways to compete with other states. Quick says that expanding tourism could help diversify the economy when farms and ranches face low commodity prices.
To his credit, Quick realizes that any proposal that costs money will face heavier scrutiny in the light of revenue receipts running less than projections. But he thinks it’s worth looking into.
Tourism Commissioner Roger Jasnoch, director of the Kearney Visitors Bureau, says he likes the idea of tourism improvement districts because they could help generate additional cash to promote local attractions or build and maintain convention centers. He says it’s a great way for communities to help themselves, another tool they can use.
As part of tourism commission reform, lawmakers expanded the body from nine members to 11. Four are required to have professional, volunteer or public service experience related to the commission's duties. Seven must be affiliated with the tourism industry.
To that end, Governor Pete Ricketts recently appointed 11 members, including: Roger Dixon of Omaha, president and CEO of Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority; John Chapo of Lincoln, director of the Lincoln Children’s Zoo; Jeanna Stavas of Nebraska City, owner of Whispering Pines Bed and Breakfast; Roger Kuhn of Ashland, assistant director for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission; Darrin Barner of Laurel, national recruiting specialist for Heritage Homes of Nebraska; Debra Nelson-Loseke of Columbus, director of the Columbus/Platte County Convention & Visitors Bureau; Ashley Olson of Red Cloud, executive director of the Willa Cather Foundation; Jasnoch; Sarah Sortum of Burwell, rancher at Switzer Ranch and an ecotourism provider for Calamus Outfitters; Barry McFarland of Lexington, owner of Mac’s Creek Winery and McFarland Family Farms; and Starr Lehl of Minatare, economic development director for the city of Scottsbluff.
If you have ideas about improving tourism in Nebraska, contact your nearest commissioner and share them.
J.L. Schmidt is the statehouse correspondent for the Nebaska Press Association. He has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered independent for 18 years.