- Apr 21, 2022
Out of all the economic casualties of COVID, the tourism and hospitality industry was undoubtedly among the hardest hit. Help is on the way via American Rescue Plan Act funds, with $10 million over the next three years allocated by Cook County to five suburban convention and tourism bureaus. Additionally, the State of Illinois recently authorized $50M in grants for restaurants and taverns as well as new grants to hotel operators.
Gina Speckman, Executive Director of Chicago’s North Shore Convention & Visitors Bureau (CNSCVB), explains that the funding from Cook County will enable the designated CVBs to help all elements of the tourism and hospitality industry to recover from the persistent impact of the pandemic. “Obviously, our businesses were completely hammered,” says Speckman. “We need to concentrate on rebuilding demand.”
Cook County received roughly $1 billion in ARPA funds, to be divided between shoring up lost county revenue, supplementing social services, and economic recovery and development. When County officials were making distribution decisions, Gina was among the vocal advocates for assistance to the tourism sector in calls with Cook County Commissioner Scott Britton and the County Bureau of Economic Development.
That advocacy led to the establishment of the Suburban Cook County Travel, Tourism, and Hospitality Economic Recovery Initiative, directing funds to CNSCVB, Chicago Southland Convention & Visitors Bureau, Meet Chicago Northwest, Rosemont Convention Bureau, and Visit Oak Park. Programs will target job training and recruitment, promotion of outdoor activities and venues, and a collaborative regional tourism marketing campaign. The initiative will receive $5M in the first year and a total of $10M at the end of three years.
Another shot in the arm for the restaurant industry was approved in Springfield in April, when legislators passed a budget that included $50M in grants for the restaurant industry. The new aid is designed to reach businesses with <50 employees that did not receive aid from the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund Program; the state Back to Business Grant Program or the Business Interruption Grant program; or any other local or state program providing more than $10,000 in grants or forgiven loans. However, Payroll Protection Program (PPP) funding will not exclude a business from eligibility. The state will award a one-time grant in an amount of up to $50,000 to each eligible entity, with amounts determined based on the business’s reported losses.
“We know how hard local businesses have been hit by the pandemic,” State Rep. Jonathan Carroll told the Chamber. “As they’re getting back on their feet, we want to help them be successful. This is a step in that direction.”
The General Assembly also came through at the end of their session with support for hotels. The Hotel Jobs Recovery Grant Program Act, effective July 1, enables the Department of Commerce and Economic Development to provide grants to any size hotel at the rate of $1500 per guest room. Recipients must use at least 80 percent of the grant to fund employee-related expenses, including wages, health care and benefits. The remainder may be put towards public safety upgrades, property taxes, mortgage payment, or debts incurred due to the pandemic.
“This bill is to throw a lifeline, not just to the hotels but to the hotel workers because we still have more than 20,000 workers across the state that are still laid off to this day,” said Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association President Michael Jacobson in a WGN Radio interview. “Especially with how devastating this winter was with Omicron, [the hotel industry] didn’t get the recovery started as quickly as we hoped.” He noted that the Chicago area lags far behind other major cities in hotel occupancy rate recovery, due to Chicago’s reliance on business and convention travel.
Application procedures for the new restaurant and hotel grants are still in development. The Chamber will watch for updates and share information as it becomes available.
The continued support for funding demonstrates the importance of restaurants, hotels, and other hospitality businesses to the regional and state economies. “The tourism industry employs one out of ten workers in the County,” notes Gina Speckman. “I’m glad that our needs are being heard.”