Shuttered tourism, entertainment taking its toll on local economy

By BY MARK H. STOWERS FOR THE E-T,

Tourist season is annual and cancellations can’t be recouped.

With COVID-19 shutting down businesses and non-profits such as the B.B. King Museum and the Brindley Theater, the loss of a season can’t be made up.

The city and county also lose out on tourist dollars as well as sales tax revenue from businesses being shut down.

Malika Polk-Lee, Executive Director of the B.B. King Museum closed the doors in March and has not re-opened. “We’re dealing with the same issue that the rest of the tourism industry is dealing with,” Polk-Lee said. “Even though the state is beginning to open businesses back up it will be a little bit of time for us because we have to get procedures in place. We have to retrofit some of our equipment to allow for social distancing.”

The museum is also in the midst of a $4 million renovation that was due to open in September.  With the doors locked, the museum is losing money with each passing day.

“We are losing revenue every day because we have no one coming in,” she said. “With no admissions, there is no one to purchase things from the gift shop. We are trying to figure out what this year looks like and how do we move forward once we do reopen.”

She said it would take the tourism industry at least into the next year to recover in any way.

“There’s really no recouping what we lost. Once that time is past and people don’t come, that time is past. That is income basically lost,” she said. “We hope that next year at this time we are back to a somewhat normal operation as far as the number of tourists we are seeing come to the museum.”

Polk-Lee is now concentrating on finding grant money to fill the holes in the museum’s budget from the shutdown.

“Every grant that we are finding that we can apply for, we are doing it,” she said. “We are very fortunate that the legislatures have considered us, both federal and state. They are making grants available to help us keep our heads above water.”

She had to furlough 75 percent of the museum staff and currently has a handful of staff working.

“I’m not quite sure when I’ll be able to get them back to work. But being open is one thing, getting people to come back is another,” she said. “You can have your doors open but if no one comes, you’re still in the same situation. Will people feel comfortable coming back to museums? We are hoping the industry will rebound by next year but we’re in a wait and see game like everyone else. This is pretty devastating and something that we’ve never seen before.”

The September grand opening is now “up in the air. If we do the grand opening in September will anyone feel comfortable enough to come?”

The Brindley Theater was in the midst of getting ready to cast for their spring musical and the finale of their season.

COVID-19 shut down those plans and the theatre leadership is hopeful to turn the stage lights on in the near future, Board President Mary Ruth Brindley said.

“We were right in the middle of auditions for the Sound of Music that was going to be in June,” Brindley said. “We put that on hold. Right now, we presume we’ll move that to next season. But we’re at a standstill.”

Brindley did explain the timing is somewhat unique in that the shutdown came at the end of their theatrical season.

“I’m hoping by fall we’ll still be able to do something. Maybe we can move the Sound of Music. (Dr.) Eddie (Donahoe) will be directing and if he wants to do it in the fall that will be great, or if he wants to wait and try to do it in the summer.”

In the meantime, next season is being planned for the normally standing room only professional level shows.

“Last season was really successful, especially if we’d been able to complete it,” she said.

The city of Indianola is looking for ways to fill the budget holes created by COVID-19 business shutdowns. 

Mayor Steve Rosenthal has been working with the National League of Cities on problems for small southern communities geared toward towns of 50,000 people or less. He’s also been working with the Mississippi Department of Revenue and other researchers to figure out what the financial impact will be.

“I’m expecting at least a 15 percent drop in sales tax revenues. That could be between $200,000 and $250,000 annually,” Mayor Rosenthal said.

He also knows that the economy turnaround won’t be like turning on a light switch.

It will take time to get everything back online and get customers back in stores.

When stores were shut down, the mayor was a little bit upset that large stores were deemed essential while smaller retail ones were shut down.

“Those other stores tend to be our specialty mom and pop operations. It automatically fed business to Walmart and I don’t have any animosity toward them, but I’d like our playing field to be fair. You had the doors close on everybody but Walmart or other discount stores.”

The mayor and the city council have been keeping an eye on the city budget and the tax money coming in.

“We rely on that two percent tourism tax, which is on prepared food, which basically got shut down, on alcoholic beverages, which got shut down and lodging, which basically got shut down. I haven’t gotten the numbers for April’s amount but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s 50 percent down. We had a pretty good drop in March. The two percent usually generates between $35,000 and $50,000 a month. I’m anxious to see what it is.”

The city does have a “Rainy Day Fund” of $4 million that Rosenthal is looking at but is holding off on tapping. He’s tightening the city’s budget belt as much as he can.

“Any expenditure over $500, I have to approve,” he said. “There were still some items in the budget we were going to get that we won’t get. We’ll just make do without it for another year. I had to replace an air conditioner for city hall. That was budgeted and it was $22,000. It wasn’t something I could say no to for this year. I had already done that last year but one of the two 10-ton compressors went out. It basically ran at half capacity for a year.”

The city’s budget has anywhere from 2/3 to 3/4 comprised of payroll.

“The largest cost is manpower. We’re trying hard to watch overtime. At this point we’re not laying anybody off or terminating anybody,” he said.

A 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew was adopted by the city and that has helped police keep regular hours with businesses closing earlier than normal each day.

The mayor also noted that the federal government is being lobbied to help communities 50,000 and less to have more money included specifically for them.

“We are looking for anything to help lessen the shortfall,” he said. “I do my best not to spend (the Rainy Day Fund). We won’t shut down but it won’t last forever if we don’t get flowing again. That is our safety net. I will say that it will be likely but how much is the questions. I’m hoping no more than a couple hundred thousand but that’s me being the eternal optimist.”

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