Bill to allow ‘tourism improvement districts’ moves ahead

SHERIDAN — During a Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee meeting in Sheridan earlier this month, legislators agreed to forward a piece of legislation authorizing the creation of tourism improvement districts.

If approved during the 2022 legislative session, the bill could provide an additional source of funding for the local tourism industry, according to Sheridan County Travel and Tourism Director Shawn Parker.

“I think it’s really limitless in what we could do,” Parker said, noting a locally formed Tourism Improvement District could bring funding for renovations to the Sheridan County Fairgrounds or for the development of the Doubleday Sports Complex, among other projects.

The legislation, if passed, would be “enabling legislation” allowing private tourism-related businesses to form a special district if they so choose. As written in the bill, tourism improvement districts are different from other special districts in how they’re funded. Rather than a tax mill levy, the district is funded through an extra fee paid by the customers of local tourism businesses, either as a percentage or flat rate.

Only certain tourism-oriented businesses, such as restaurants, resorts, attractions and overnight accommodations would assess the extra fee, according to Executive Director of the Wyoming Restaurant and Lodging Association Chris Brown.

“The bill is important because it gives Wyoming communities of every size, large and small and everything in between, the ability for the businesses in those communities to control their own destiny,” Brown said.

The activities funded with the Tourism Improvement District dollars can vary depending on the priorities of each community and the businesses within it, Parker said, but they could include marketing, sales and other promotional programs; promoting special events designed to increase tourism; and funding projects designed to improve the visitor experience.

“A TID might assist with local signage, beautification projects and the development of recreation assets, whether that’s a ski lift, an events center or county fairgrounds,” Parker said. “The point is, this is a tool built to be flexible.”

Currently, the majority of funding for tourism projects comes from the state’s lodging tax, according to Rep. Pat Sweeney, R-Casper. A tourism improvement district would increase the fundraising potential for tourism projects by expanding the tax burden to other tourism-related industries.

“One of the unfairnesses in the lodging tax is it’s only on lodging facilities and campgrounds,” Sweeney said. “But the restaurants play a huge role, and they currently want to help, but that’s not possible in our current lodging tax structure. This gives them a way to help, and, if they’re not in favor, they can vote against it.”

Twenty states — including neighboring states Montana, South Dakota and Colorado — already utilize tourism improvement districts, Parker said.

This is not the first time the Legislature has considered tourism improvement district legislation, according to Brown. The draft bill mimics House Bill 93, a similar bill introduced during the 2019 legislative session, which set forth the rules for creating and funding tourism districts. That bill was approved by the House, but died on the Senate floor.

The new tourism improvement district bill received strong support from the committee and was approved on a 9-3 vote during its Sept. 3 meeting. Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, who owns a hotel and is part of the tourism industry, declared a conflict of interest and did not vote.