It’s not a storefront business, but Dawes County, and indeed the entire northern Panhandle, sells itself in a lot of ways.
“Tourism is a huge contributor to the economy,” said Dawes County Tourism Director Kristina Harter. Visitors to the area spend money in local hotels, restaurants, gas stations and other businesses. The more the area can be marketed to outsiders, the more tourism dollars can be generated to boost the local economy.
While the area’s natural beauty is a key selling point, local residents play an important role in selling the area, too, said Alex Helmbrecht, president of the Dawes County Travel Board.
“The people are great. People are key in tourism. It’s a reflection on the community. We all work together for tourism,” Helmbrecht said.
To support and encourage tourism growth, the Dawes County Travel Board oversees the administration of the county’s lodging tax collections. It’s believed that the lodging tax was first implemented in 1980. Today, each hotel room rental is charged a 5 percent lodging tax, with one percent dedicated to the state’s tourism fund and the balance to Dawes County. The county’s four percent is split between two funds: promotions and improvement.
“(Collections have) been pretty steady over the last couple of years,” Harter said, adding that with the opening of the Holiday Inn Express last summer they saw an increase and hope to continue that trend.
Dawes County collected its first lodging tax dollars in August 1980 and generated just over $7,500 before the year was out to promote tourism in the region. The first full year of collections garnered more than $21,000 after administrative fees, and after a slight dip the next two years, the lodging tax never dropped below $20,000 again. July of 1987 represented the first time the county collected more than $5,000 in a month, and in 1995 every month’s collections topped $1,000 for the first time in history. The next year, the county had its first $10,000 month, coming in July and likely due in large part to Fur Trade Days; 1996 also was the first year collections surpassed $40,000. The lodging tax continued to increase over the years, until in 2014 is topped $125,000, with the months of June to September generating five figures.
The last two years have generated more than $160,000, and Harter said the county is on track to exceed last year’s figures again.
A seven-member Travel Board, which must include at least two individuals actively involved in the lodging industry, distributes the funds collected. The improvements fund is dedicated to tourism infrastructure, while the promotions fund is used to assist actual events.
Applications for improvement dollars are accepted each March and September. The large projects the board has agreed to fund in recent years include $50,000 over two years toward the Chadron Area Aquatics and Wellness Center, converting the Chadron State Park disc golf course from nine holes to 18, the Marcus Cain building at the Dawes County Historical Museum and improvements to the Crawford City Park.
The board has also allocated $24,000 in promotion grants for events in both Chadron and Crawford, ranging from the county fair and Fur Trade Days to the Crawford Fourth of July celebration and Crawford mud racing.
The board always has good, deliberate discussions about which projects to fund, Helmbrecht said, adding that he personally likes to see a well-rounded and thought out project that will fulfill the mission of increasing tourism.
“We always have an eye toward bringing the visitors to the area,” he said.
Another important aspect of the grant application is how the event will sustain itself in the future, Harter said. The board doesn’t want to be the only funding source for an event in perpetuity.
One of the biggest tourism events in 2017 was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. With Dawes County very near the path of totality of the Great American Solar Eclipse, publicity for the area skyrocketed. Harter estimates that 20,000 people visited Dawes and Sioux counties that day.
“That’s just a free invitation for them to come back,” she said. Ahead of the eclipse, the Travel Board helped distribute information on the area and served as a clearinghouse for lodging sources after area hotel rooms had been booked. The board also purchased and gave away 5,000 solar eclipse glasses and provided grant funds to Crawford for that city’s eclipse activities and to Chadron State College for its NASA exhibit.
While another opportunity like the eclipse may not be on the horizon anytime soon, the Travel Board is remaining proactive. Recognizing that personnel will change over time the group is working on a strategic plan to develop a clear mission for itself and the director, in the hopes of maintaining continuity.
“We are trying to operate within a more efficient system” Helmbrecht said. “I think we have a real opportunity to define promotions and improvements (in 2018-19).”
The Travel Board is currently in the process of completing a survey to determine the nine things people look for in a community and where the region stacks up against other cities. The information will help direct the board in its future endeavors, said Harter, who was hired as the county’s first full-time tourism director in 2015.
Whichever direction the Dawes County Travel Board takes in the future, it will likely continue its regional approach. In April 2016, the county signed an agreement with Sioux County to merge marketing efforts. Sioux County contributes half of its lodging tax dollars to the Dawes County funds each year, and in return the Dawes County efforts market Northwest Nebraska instead of focusing solely on the county level. The idea of Northwest Nebraska more appealing and easier for people to envision, Harter said. In addition, the joint effort makes it possible to keep visitors in the area longer than either county could do alone.
“I think that partnership is super important,” Harter said, noting that counties in southeast Nebraska have inquired about the effort as they consider duplicating it. Harter is also involved with the Western Nebraska Tourism Coalition, working to promote the entire western Nebraska region. She’s currently the organization’s treasurer and marketing co-chair and would like to see more individuals from the northern Panhandle participate in the organization.
“(Kristina’s) the best marketing asset we have. She’s a wonderful advocate,” Helmbrecht said.
Part of the effort to get the word out about Northwest Nebraska includes hosting tours of travel writers. The Travel Board has hosted two groups in two years, Helmbrecht said, and is planning a familiarization tour for bus tour operators this summer. That could translate into thousands of dollars in revenue from bus tours in the future, he said.
Another large demographic that plays an important role in the tourism economy is hunters. The region’s abundance of public lands are of real value, Harter said. That’s true not only for the hunting demographic, but for hikers and bikers. That’s why the board used a 2017 Nebraska Tourism grant to create a guidebook featuring maps of local trails. Nearly all of the 3,000 guidebooks were snapped up within the first few months after printing, and the project served as a catalyst for the creation of the Northwest Nebraska Trails Association, which hopes to help maintain and promote the area’s public trails.
The Travel Board hopes to soon update its website with a photo and video gallery of the region and has also printed large tear-off maps of the region as a useful tool for visitors. Harter and the board are actively assisting with the upcoming Nebraska State Fly-in, scheduled to take place at the Chadron Airport in June, and is working on a project that will allow local businesses and attractions to place their brochures on racks for an affordable $10 per year.
All of the Dawes County Travel Board meetings are open to the public, and the board welcomes input, ideas and questions, Helmbrecht said. Long-term they want to increase the mindset among local residents that Northwest Nebraska is a tourist destination, allowing everyone to work together to capitalize on that, Harter added.
“I think it’s a great place, and I want other people to think the same thing,” Helmbrecht said.
Editor's Note: This version correctly states that the Travel Board is planning a familiarization tour for bus tour operators this summer. We apologize for the previous error.