McCOOK, Nebraska -- Red Willow County, Nebraska, commissioners Monday morning approved an increase in the county's lodging tax to establish an "improvement fund" that can help finance "brick and mortar" projects designed to enhance tourism opportunities.
The new 2 percent tax on motel services is in addition to the 2 percent tax already collected for the "County Visitors Promotion Fund."
The new tax, approved following a public hearing during the commissioners' weekly meeting, takes effect Jan. 1, 2013.
Carol Schlegel, director of the Red Willow County Visitors Committee, and board members told commissioners that, using 2011 lodging tax collections as a guide, the new tax could generate about $70,000 a year. Red Willow County has 245 hotel/motel rooms that range in price from $40 to $120 a night.
County commission chairman Earl McNutt stressed that this new tax is not a new tax added onto the county's tax levy, but is a tax paid only by those renting motel/hotel rooms or by those utilizing travel trailer hook-ups (except those in McCook's Karrer Park, which are free of charge). Every county and community of any size is collecting these lodging taxes, he said.
Both the lodging promotion tax and lodging improvement tax will be collected by the Nebraska Department of Revenue, and returned to the county.
Perry Strombeck of McCook and the Horse Creek Inn, a visitors committee member, told commissioners that up to a 4 percent lodging tax is commonly collected across the state, and that this new tax in Red Willow County will not discourage lodgers. "From a lodger's standpoint," Strombeck said, "this will not be a deterrent to anyone's potential lodging choice. On a $100 room, this is a $2 bill. Most may notice it, but it won't bother them."
The new tax will be used to help fund capital improvement projects that will enhance the county and McCook as tourism destinations.
* The construction of "interpretative signage," QR codes or "Snap Tags" that, when scanned, link visitors to videos and/or storytellers that explain the structures upon which the tags appear. This type of project could partner with the Heritage Square Committee and/or Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival coordinators. Commissioner Steve Downer said he could envision interpretive signage along the "Old West Cattle Trail."
* The development of "Watchable Wildlife" opportunities, in partnership with Southwest Nebraska Resource, Conservation and Development (RC&D), which is in the beginning stages of promoting and developing bird-watching experiences.
* Increasing accessibility to genealogy resources, creating/enhancing opportunities for those researching their family histories.
* Development of a children's museum, a possible partnership with Mid-Plains Community College, McCook Public Schools and the City of McCook.
While the promotion tax fund may be used only for tourism marketing, the improvement tax fund may be used for improvement projects as well as to promote, encourage and attract visitors to use travel and tourism facilities.
Strombeck said that, generally, people will approach the visitors' committee with their own ideas for the usage of the improvement tax money. "We can be a very good partner with activities in Red Willow County that bring people to town and generate the lodging taxes," he said.
Rex Nelson, executive director of the McCook Economic Development Corp., told commissioners he supports the new improvement tax. "Tourism is an industry poised for growth," he said. "It's a good time to make strategic investments."