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We find ourselves in some weird, wild times.

The COVID-19 situation has caused a paradigm shift in the way we conduct our everyday lives and may affect them for the foreseeable future. From keeping our distance in lines at the store, to how many times a day we wash our hands, to staying in our homes much more than we used to.

Almost every industry has experienced massive impacts, and tourism/hospitality has been at the forefront. I should preface that statement with the following: due to the severity, uncertainty, and uniqueness of the pandemic, most people agree that a cautious approach is the correct one. When people’s lives are at stake, it's incumbent for all of us to do whatever we can to help keep people safe. I don’t want to minimize the situation we find ourselves in any way, but it's also important to give the perspective from our industry.

In short: we’re hurting. Badly. And some of us are worse than others.

Last fall I made several posts on my personal Facebook page about the importance of Middlesboro being able to enact a local restaurant tax (which was also featured in our local paper). Granted, restaurants have been hurting, too. But the vast majority were able to ramp up their drive-through/carryout/delivery service mechanisms to offset the lack of dine-in customers. They found ways to adapt to the situation and survive. Meanwhile, the hotel industry is a completely different story. No one is traveling (granted for good reason). But three months of suspended animation has done damage that could take years to reverse.

Due to us getting our data a month after the fact, and that we only have had three months to analyze thus far, it's a little early to be giving an accurate forecast of how our industry can weather this storm. But the early indications aren’t positive. So far, it looks like we will be looking down the barrel of a massive cut of over half our budget. Special projects (community events) will take a huge hit in funding, as will advertising and basically every other budget category this upcoming year.

Our tourism industry here in Bell County, even when we were setting record numbers in regards to the amount of economic impact we were achieving over the past couple years, is severely underfunded due to an antiquated and silly state law prohibiting us from enacting a local restaurant tax because we used to be a third-class city (which, now in Kentucky, we don't even have city classifications anymore). It left a huge disparity between our budget and our peers, with smaller or even larger cities that had reclassified at some point in the past with much larger budgets. Some cities that are half the size and create a fraction of the economic impact have budgets three times the size of ours due to their ability to utilize a local restaurant tax.

The old third-class cities in Kentucky were already at a major disadvantage, and lawmakers in Frankfort did nothing when a bill came forward that could rectify the situation last session. In the end, lobbyists won again.

Then COVID-19 hit. And it hit our industry hard. And while other tourism commissions had a hard time dealing with it, the ones that face the same funding restrictions as we do have been dealt the worst hand of all. Because while other commissions can still rely on their restaurant tax to help sustain them, we have no such ability in Middlesboro.

Weren't I so confident in our area and our timeless resiliency, I’d be a lot more concerned about the massive budget cuts we are looking at, and how our industry is facing a huge uphill climb to get out of this hole. But I am confident in our area, our people, the projects we have coming in the future, and most of all: our will to find a way.

But it would sure be nice if next session, we can find a way to end this crippling financial roadblock to our area. All we are asking for is the same ability to support ourselves like everyone else. I have hope that our lawmakers can do just that because if they don’t and our situation doesn’t improve dramatically, it’s a death sentence for tourism in these third-class cities across the state.

Post your thoughts below!!! We want to hear what you think!!!

Jon Grace Bell County Tourism Director

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