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Independence lands funds for tourism

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net

While its tourist attractions remain closed for the rest of 2020 amid the pandemic, the city of Independence will be eligible for about $1 million in federal CARES Act funds for tourism. 

National Frontier Trails Museum volunteer Dave Ragan asks questions of Independence second graders during a student field trip last December. Although the Trails Museum and other Independence tourism sites are closed amid the pandemic, the city is slated to receive about $1 million in federal CARES Act funds for specific tourism marketing.

The funds must be used for marketing and cover public-health related expenses and cannot be used for capital projects.

“We can’t go out and put a new roof on the Vaile (Mansion) with it,” Mayor Eileen Weir said. 

The money comes from the $15 million the state of Missouri allotted for tourism under the CARES Act, the law Congress passed in the spring for immediate coronavirus relief. The state distributed $13 million earlier in the summer, from which Independence received $59,000, Tourism Manager Kristi Criswell said. When the other $2 million opened up, the city applied again and received half of it.

“As I’ve said before, every dollar that’s available in aid, we’re going to pursue,” Weir said.

While city-owned tourist sites have been closed, Criswell said staff still put together marketing areas that fit the state’s guidelines. Much of the marketing has been or will be in digital ads and through social media.

Missouri’s tourism division ultimately approves what the city will be reimbursed for.

“We could go back to March and submit any marketing we’d done from that point,” Criswell said. “We’ve been finding ways that people can come into town and explore outdoors places, even if some buildings are closed.”

“We couldn’t plan for spring marketing. It has to be done right now.”

Criswell noted that private paranormal programs that use city buildings have become trendy, and the city can capture some interest from the Truman Presidential Library’s scheduled reopening later in the fall.

Weir and Eric Urfer, director of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, said part of the reason for closing tourism sites – the National Frontier Trails Museum, Bingham-Waggoner Estate and Vaile Mansion – through 2020 was to avoid asking volunteer staffers to put themselves at risk. The museum particularly has had three full-time positions, but all three sites rely heavily on volunteers.

“We didn’t feel it was in our best interest to put them into that situation,” Weir said.

Also, not surprisingly, the local transient guest tax that provides nearly all of the city’s tourism division budget has produced less revenue than years past. Criswell said tax receipts from March through June, the last quarter of Independence’s fiscal year, were down 57 percent from the year before.

The pandemic hit at a particularly inopportune time for the National Frontier Trails Museum, which along with its volunteer support group was in the midst of hosting several events during March to celebrate the museum’s 30th anniversary. Such events included a banquet, and some open houses for the refurbished Pioneer Spring Cabin that got moved to the museum grounds last year.

In a letter earlier in the summer to members of the Friends of the National Frontier Trails Museum volunteer group, informing them of the activities cancelation and museum closure for 2020, president Jeannae Segura Brown said the museum’s three full-time positions would not be filled due to budget constraints and that part-time museum employees had been furloughed.

“The Trails Museum is important to the history of Independence and the USA. We welcome your comments and ideas on how we can keep it alive,” Brown said in her letter.

Museum administrator Dave Aamodt retired last year and had not yet been replaced when the pandemic hit. The other full-time employees – the event and education program manager and collections manager – left for different jobs early in the year. The city had been ready to conduct interviews to fill the positions when the pandemic halted that process, Urfer and Criswell said.

Urfer said the city intends to reopen the Trails Museum at some point, though he will wait until later in the fall to make a recommendation on how to staff it. Weir said she does not foresee a scenario in which the Trails Museum doesn’t reopen.

In the meantime, Urfer said, the tourism sites, while closed to the public, can be available for group tours in special cases, following all the necessary health precautions.