Tourism hit hard by coronavirus shutdown

Panther Junction Visitor Center at Big Bend National Park. 

Brewster County Commissioners Court held its regular meeting on Aug. 12, and the main topic was the huge hit to the county tourism industry as a result of the coronavirus.  

“Tourism has been decimated by the pandemic,” said Brewster County Tourism Council Executive Director Robert Alvarez.

County Judge Eleazar Cano announced that two chili cook-offs, including the Terlingua International Chili-Cookoff Championship, had been canceled this year.

Commissioner, Pct. 3, Ruben Ortega then addressed the Big Bend National Park closures and their effect on the local economy, noting there had been an increase in tourism this summer before the second closure. Alvarez said his office had dozens of requests from visitors who were not able to get into the park due to barricades at the entrances. The park reopened for limited use on Aug. 7.

In other business, Alvarez said hotel/motel tax collection numbers were down around $300,000-$400,000 due to the shutdown, adding, “Most destinations like ours are not expecting a return to pre-pandemic numbers until 2022, and that concerns me greatly.”

He requested that the Brewster County Tourism Board reduce the proposed budget 45%, from last year’s approximately $1.342 million to about $680,000. Alvarez projected that instead of the customary $1 million typically collected, the county would bring in only $700,000-$800,000 in hotel/motel tax revenue.

Alvarez expressed concern with the anti-tourism sentiment in the county, and said he was planning to mail surveys to county residents for feedback.

According to Alvarez, 2% of county residents were “very vocal about hating tourism,” even though 20% of the population was employed in the tourism industry.

“This is the major industry out here,” explained Alvarez. “The 2% of people who hate us are the ones who yell the loudest and come to all these meetings.”

Cano then thanked Alvarez and the Tourism Board for slashing its budget, bringing significant savings to the county. He was more concerned with Airbnb’s not paying their fair share of hotel/motel taxes, and said he would look closely at the upcoming Texas Legislative session to address that issue.

County auditor Patty Roach provided a summary of the 2020 certified tax roll and tax rate collections. Roach said the no new revenue rate, formerly called the effective tax rate, was 0.389601, and the voter approval tax rate, formerly called the rollback rate, was 0.427020. Roach said if the tax rate were raised by one cent, at 96% collection, it would generate $89,000 more, but if the court adopted the no new revenue rate, it would leave the county with a $96,000 deficit.

Cano said an alternative to raising the tax rate was make to up the difference with general revenue funds.  

Finally, Commissioner, Pct. 4, Mike Pallanez, expressed dissatisfaction with the time it was taking to install dry hydrants in North Double Diamond. Cano said he was aiming for two water tanks to be installed this week.

The next regularly scheduled commissioner’s court meeting is set for Wednesday, Aug. 26 at 9:30 a.m., and the 2020 proposed tax rate hearing was set for Wednesday, Sept. 9.

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