JENNA EASON/THE TELEGRAPH Macon, GA, 03/30/2019: People walk to different sides of Third Street between the cherry trees at the Food Truck Frenzy on Saturday. The event was part of the Cherry Blossom Festival.

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When people stopped traveling to Macon-Bibb County during the coronavirus pandemic, fewer people stayed in the area’s hotels, reducing the amount of taxes the county receives for those hotel rooms.

The Hotel/Motel Excise Tax supports 10 organizations and events in Bibb County in addition to a small percentage going to the general fund; with the revenues dramatically declining during the COVID-19 outbreak, those organizations have suffered a major blow.

Visit Macon, the promotional organization that brings tourists and events to Macon, receives the largest portion of the tax, which makes up around 85% of its budget, said Gary Wheat, the president and CEO of Visit Macon.

“This is something in my 20-plus years that our industry did not see coming, whether that was the great recession or things and events that we’ve been through in our time that have impacted travel, but nothing like the pandemic to the point where people quit traveling, and that hit our hotels hard,” Wheat said.

Although Visit Macon brings films, sports and other events to Macon, Wheat said a major result of their work is improving the bottom line of Macon-Bibb County residents.

For every $1 Visit Macon invests to bring people to Macon to visit, it brings $54 back into the local economy, according to their website. Visit Macon supports 3,800 jobs and generates millions in tax revenue and tourism spending.

“We’re the ones telling the story in the southeast, we’re producing the commercials that someone here in Macon-Bibb county may not see sitting at their computer or watching their television. Well, our role is to go beyond Macon-Bibb boundaries,” he said. “We’re worried about that tax revenue continuing to climb up because it helps our community…. So for every event, every person that we’re able to attract to our county, it helps our county and especially during a pandemic where we see that travel can stop and it did. We’re able to each day keep working.”

Plus, Visit Macon is responsible for the films that come to Macon for footage, sponsoring events like Bragg Jam and the Pan African Festival and promoting events like the annual Christmas lights in downtown Macon, Wheat said.

Visit Macon planned for a 10% cut for the 2021 fiscal year, and they had to scale back some of their campaigns that are now ramping back up.

The numbers

Here are the organizations that receive a portion of the Hotel/Motel Excise Tax.

  • Visit Macon – 47.2%

  • Cherry Blossom Festival – 6.2%

  • Tubman Museum – 3.75%

  • Douglass Theatre – 6.52%

  • Georgia Sports Hall of Fame – 6.52%

  • Museum of Arts and Sciences – 3.75%

  • Macon Centreplex and Auditorium – 11.75%

  • Tobesofkee Recreation Area – 11.5%

  • Macon Arts Alliance – 0.73%

  • Fort Hawkins Foundation – 0.21%

From January 2018 to March 2020, the lowest amount of revenue the county received from the Hotel/Motel Excise Tax was $292,778, according to county records. The county received $169,383 in June 2020, the lowest amount of revenue the tax has produced during the pandemic.

Although it takes around two months for the organizations to receive the revenue from the tax, Harold Young, the interim executive director at the Tubman Museum, said they noticed the severe decrease in June revenues.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tubman has had to cut its hours to only being open three days a week, and they have stopped giving guided tours, Young said.

“If those funds are cut, it definitely affects the operation and the growth of the museum,” he said. “We can’t be a full fledged attraction to the city, which helps everybody’s bottom line.”

Looking to the future

The Cherry Blossom Festival was one of the many events that was canceled in 2020, but the festival is planned for 2021 for March 19-28, said Stacy Moore.

The Hotel/Motel Excise Tax is used by the Cherry Blossom Festival to cover their administrative fees while they raise money to make their events as affordable as possible, Moore said.

“Our board of directors understood the challenges that we were about to face, and so we had essentially gone ahead and budgeted for half of what we normally receive,” she said. “We did that on purpose as a worst case scenario.”

Moore said they are trying to maintain their goal of keeping 80% of their events free, and the only change people might notice at the 2021 Cherry Blossom Festival is guidelines put in place to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus, she said.

Visit Macon saw a nearly 20% decrease in revenues for the 2020 fiscal year, but Wheat said that is not as bad as some other organizations in the industry.

However, Visit Macon is still planning events and encouraging people to visit the county with much success, he said.

“It’s just one of those situations where with each passing day, we’re seeing silver linings. We’re seeing a little more positive each day, and that’s critical for our industry. People want to get out. People want to travel. We’ve kind of seen that, and we offer a wonderful opportunity for them with wide open spaces. That’s one of the things they say they’re looking for,” he said.

Wheat mentioned Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park and Amerson River Park as examples of the type of places people are looking at having events because they are outdoors with space to social distance.

“We’re optimistic about FY 21 and what that looks like. We’re seeing the positive signs going forward. We just continue to work day in and day out to bring those people in and put them in those hotels and eat in our restaurants and spend their money,” he said.

Jenna Eason creates serviceable news around culture, business and people who make a difference in the Macon community for The Telegraph. Jenna joined The Telegraph staff as a Peyton Anderson Fellow and multimedia reporter after graduating from Mercer University in May 2018 with a journalism degree and interning at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Jenna has covered issues surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, Middle Georgia elections and protests for the Middle Georgia community and Telegraph readers.
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