Nebraska lawmakers are looking for ways to give the state's tourism industry a boost in hopes of attracting more money-spending visitors, but a tight budget means they'll likely have little additional funding for their efforts.
Tourism leaders say they don't yet know what proposals might emerge in next year's legislative session, but argue that state officials should do more to expand the state's third-largest industry, behind agriculture and manufacturing.
Early ideas include partnerships between the state and local governments to pay for new facilities, such as visitors' centers, or maintenance of local historic buildings. Industry 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.
The Legislature's budget-writing Appropriations Committee is set to review the issue Friday at the request of state Sen. Dan Quick, of Grand Island, and local tourism officials.
Quick said he began researching tourism at the request of his local convention and visitors' bureau, which is seeking ways to compete with other states.
He said he may introduce legislation in next year's session and argued that expanding tourism could help diversify the economy when farms and ranches face low commodity prices.
"When agriculture is down, you have to have another revenue source, and I think tourism will play an important role in that," Quick said. "Maybe we don't have the Rocky Mountains and ski slopes, but we have a lot of great things here in Nebraska to be proud of."
Still, any proposal that costs money is likely to face heavier scrutiny as long as state revenue continues to lag behind projections. Quick said finding the money to pay for any new programs would be difficult unless the state's budget outlook improves.
Tourism officials in Grand Island believe additional support will help them compete with larger cities when hosting major events, said Brad Mellema, executive director of the Grand Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Mellema pointed to the Aksarben Stock Show, the nation's largest 4-H livestock show, which will take place in Grand Island for the first time this fall after an 89-year history in Omaha. The city now competes with similar shows in Denver, Fort Worth, Texas, and Kansas City, Missouri.
Mellema said many smaller communities also host popular events but don't always have enough hotel rooms or restaurants to support all of the visitors.
One such event is the Junk Jaunt, a huge garage sale of sorts spread throughout dozens of central Nebraska cities. The gathering draws hundreds of vendors and thousands of visitors to the area over three days in September.
"Each community across Nebraska has its own challenges and opportunities," Mellema said.
Roger Jasnoch, director of the Kearney Visitors Bureau, said tourism improvement districts could help tourism officials generate additional cash to promote their local attractions or build and maintain convention centers.
"It allows communities to help themselves," he said. "They don't have to do it, but it's another tool they can use."