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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — Little Rock City Hall is shown in this 2019 file photo. ( Gavin Lesnick)

LITTLE ROCK -- The city is asking the state for $3 million in federal coronavirus relief money for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, through a resolution city directors approved Tuesday night.

As of Friday, the state had $81.6 million in unallocated federal coronavirus relief funds remaining out of the $1.25 billion it was allocated through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

Last week, the Arkansas Legislative Council authorized the spending of $48.5 million for grants for service and hospitality businesses affected by the pandemic, but it doesn't include aid for municipal tourism bureaus themselves, Gretchen Hall, the bureau's chief executive, said Tuesday.

Little Rock was allotted $7.6 million in CARES Act money from the state, but is using it to cover its own pandemic-related expenditures.

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The Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau is governed by the Advertising and Promotion Commission, whose members are appointed by the city Board of Directors, but is supported separately from the city's operating budget by a hotel, motel and restaurant tax.

The pandemic has resulted in at least 239 canceled events at facilities the bureau manages, resulting in an adverse impact on the agency's revenue of at least $2.2 million, according to the resolution. The bureau eliminated 39 positions in September as a result of the financial difficulties.

At-large City Director Gene Fortson, who chairs the Advertising and Promotion Commission's finance committee, said the bureau has been able to sustain itself over the past few months because of "prudent budget management" but needs to keep an eye to the future and get in line for aid, either from the current CARES Act allotment or in the next round of funding from the federal level.

"The sales team landed a meeting for 2022, but right now that pipeline is empty, and when covid gets under control, this is not the kind of business you can just turn a faucet on and you have 200,000 people trying to go to meetings here," he said.

Ward 4 City Director Capi Peck, a former member of the Advertising and Promotion Commission, said it is important for the city that the tourism bureau is able to attract people for meetings.

"So many entities plan a year out, and we just can't afford to be behind," she said.

Jim Keet, chairman of the Advertising and Promotion Commission, said another option for state aid could be a forgivable loan through the Arkansas Development Finance Authority. He said the state has so far failed to acknowledge the importance of local tourism bureaus.

"It's just a matter of, regrettably, kind of a parochial view across the state, not recognizing what an amazing impact we do have statewide," Keet said. "Hopefully there will be some other vehicles at the state level to assist us."

Hot Springs put a similar resolution before its Board of Directors on Tuesday, encouraging the CARES Act steering committee to recommend approval of funds to assist the Hot Springs Convention Center and Bank OZK Arena.


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