Kaine: Pending legislation should include relief for SW Va. tourism

Mike Still • May 28, 2020 at 12:00 PM

Southwest Virginia tourism needs consideration in upcoming Senate legislation, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told area tourism and arts officials.

Kaine, in an online conference Wednesday, said follow-on legislation after March’s CARES Act relief package should be adjusted to the unique circumstances the region’s tourism industry faces compared to other businesses eligible for grants and loans to bridge COVID-19 pandemic-related closings.

The conference included Breaks Interstate Park Superintendent Austin Bradley, Barter Theater Artistic Director Katy Brown, Southwest Virginia Cultural Center and Marketplace Executive Director Chris Cannon, Abingdon Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Jayne Duehring and hotel developer Hal Craddock.

Bradley told Kaine that the Breaks’ development into an adventure destination in recent years had depended on working with various outfitting businesses to bring visitors to the park for rock climbing, zip lining and other activities.

“With the pandemic and economy, a lot of them are telling me they may not be able to stay in business,” Bradley said. He noted that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) had introduced legislation to give some relief to outfitters, but the bill seemed oriented more toward those in western states.

Kaine said that Wyden’s bill was behind several other pieces of legislation under Senate consideration, but the Great American Outdoors Act was closer to Senate action. That bill, Kaine said, would redirect annually $900 million in oil and gas revenues into land and water conservation. He said it was a possibility to add provisions to direct some of that money to help outfitters with added focus toward those in eastern areas.

Kaine said several senators in the 14 states along the Appalachian Trail are looking at measures to boost the trail in 2021, the AT’s centennial year. That could also help with business relief efforts for outfitters along the eastern and southern regions.

Barter Theater’s Brown said that the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program for businesses is now in the form of loans. That provision, she said, poses difficulties for theaters and arts organizations unable to open during Virginia’s state of emergency if no revenue is coming in and those organizations are looking at loans coming due after June.

Brown said the ability of the Barter and other arts organizations is complicated further when their actors and stage staff have to leave to find work. She said Barter has had to furlough 93 artistic staff because of the pandemic and state of emergency.

“We want those loans to be converted to grants,” Kaine said, referring to arts organizations of which many are 501(c)(3) nonprofit groups. He said two basic proposals are circulating among lawmakers: extending the PPP loan repayment start deadline beyond June 30 and readjusting how much of those loans can be used for non-payroll expenses.

“It’s very likely we’re going to do one or both of those things in our next bill,” Kaine said.

SWVA Cultural Center’s Cannon said his organization and many Appalachian cultural organizations have depended on Appalachian Regional Commission support in past decades to develop cultural tourism, including $15 million in the last 10 years for helping arts and cultural groups. That support is shifting, Cannon said, as the ARC has started focusing on the region’s opioid crisis and associated recovery efforts. Virginia’s slower pace in business reopening also causes issues compared to neighboring states with their reopening efforts.

“Tennessee is making a lot of money that could be spent in Virginia,” Cannon said.

Kaine acknowledged that he had not been as involved in some ARC program details as a senator compared to when he was Virginia’s governor, but he said that ARC before the pandemic had been working on a range of weaknesses in the region including racial health access inequity and improving citizens’ broadband access for education, telemedicine and cultural efforts.

Craddock, who helped develop the Western Front tourist hotel in St. Paul and the Bristol Sessions hotel project, said a coordinated, unified Southwest Virginia tourism marketing effort is need to match those of other state destinations such as Virginia Beach.

“We have a Ferrari sitting in the driveway,” Craddock said of the region’s tourism assets, “and we’re treating it like a Ford Focus.”

Abingdon CVB’s Duehring and Rosa Lee Jude of the Wytheville Convention and Visitors Bureau each said the pandemic has hit not only tourism but the meals and lodging tax revenue it puts into their localities’ coffers. Jude said that, before the pandemic, Wytheville’s position at the crossroads of Interstates 81 and 77 brought $150 million annually in travel spending to the city. The meals and tax revenue from that made up 30% of the city’s revenue stream.

Duehring said that meals and lodging taxes made up 28% of the town’s operating revenue, or more than Abingdon receives in real estate taxes.

Conference participants raised other issues: impacts on the motor coach industry; several music and arts festivals closing for 2020, including Bristol Rhythm and Roots, along with expenses incurred before the closings; and local governments facing lost revenues and not being able to use federal relief funds to bridge those losses.

Kaine said many senators are making the case that local governments need more flexibility to use federal relief monies for more than just coronavirus-related efforts. He said getting a relief bill with such provisions could happen in June.

“The virus’ impact is still growing,” Kaine said, adding that he was “sort of glad” that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was looking at pandemic recovery from a public health standpoint as well as realizing that not all Virginia regions face the same issues.

“When you’ve got the Tennessee governor taking a different tack than us, that’s a challenge,” Kaine said.

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