The Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) will furlough its six employees in order to reach required budget cuts necessitated by the loss of income caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The CVB, like all city departments, was asked to trim its budget for 2020 because of expected dips in tax revenue.
City Administrator Carl Geffken said with the economic disruption caused by COVID-19, the city assumed tax revenues will dip by 80% in April, but noted that decline could range between 20% and 80%. Geffken told city directors at the April 7 board meeting that collections in May also are expected to drop by 80%, while collections in June and July are expected to be 50% of what the city would normally collect. In total, he estimated a 22% reduction in city sales tax revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The CVB funds its operations with a 3% lodging tax. In 2019 the tax generated $920,247, up 9.5%. For the first quarter of 2020, the collections were $187,114, a 4.4% decrease from 2019’s first-quarter revenue of $195,766, according to Claude Legris, CVB executive director.
“January and February numbers were good,” Legris said. “In March, we took a big hit. It was $21,000 off from last year, or a 28% decrease. I expect April to be much lower.”
The CVB was asked to cut $250,000 from its budget. At a special Fort Smith A&P Commission meeting May 7, Legris presented a package that would cut $200,060 from the departments operating budget. The commission said he needed to cut $50,000 more.
At a meeting Tuesday (May 12), Legris presented $23,682 in cuts to operations, sales, media, print and event special projects. The remaining $26,218 will be cut through furloughs that are expected to begin with the June 1 pay period, Legris said. Staff will engage in cross-training for specific job functions that are unique to the various positions affected by furloughs, Legris said in his report. He said the department’s goals are to have minimal impact on the CVB fund balance, continue to accomplish ongoing marketing programs, and meet the needs of employees and their families.
The commission passed a motion that employee contributions to their benefit packages will be covered by lodging tax revenue while employees are furloughed.
A&P Commission member Storm Nolan asked how the CVP intends to attract visitors to Fort Smith once they start traveling again. It was noted that through 2020 and into early 2021, experts are predicting most travel will be in-state travel.
“We would like to see a plan so that when people do start coming back to Fort Smith, we can have things up and moving quickly,” said Mayor George McGill. “Last year we were told that we would be feeling the impact of the flood for 10-20 years. This [pandemic] will impact us even longer.”
The commission noted there is no word yet when the Fort Smith Convention Center, which has been closed since March 17, will reopen.
“The plan is to reopen June 1, but we will have to see,” Legris said.
The Visitors Bureau, located at Miss Laura’s, is open to the public for tours of the ground floor, though no volunteers have been called back to help with tours, said Carolyn Joyce, group travel and sales manager. Most of the volunteers are in the highest risk group for COVID-19, Joyce noted, but volunteers would be called back once more visitors created higher demand.
Geffken said the city does not believe they will need to furlough employees at the convention center and no other furloughs of city employees are planned. The convention center has 13 full-time employees.
“We are trying our level best to not do furloughs because that helps maintain business in the city, helps maintain people’s lives. We will cut our budget in other ways to help ensure our employees are employed to provide the services our residents need,” Geffken said.