By Jessica Karins | Daily Reporter
GREENFIELD — The Hancock County Tourism Commission is still in a shaky position following a year in which COVID-19 prevented many people from traveling, eating out and staying in hotels, but the organization is hoping to regain some momentum with the help of events both inside and outside the county.
At the most recent meeting of the tourism commission board, members voted not to immediately begin accepting applications for new grants. Last year, when COVID-19 became a major concern, the commission suspended its grant funding, which is mostly used to support events that might attract visitors to the county. The board will consider the issue again at its April meeting.
“We really don’t know what’s going to happen over the next couple of months. It’s literally a day-to-day thing here,” board president Amanda Everidge said.
The board’s treasurer, Bob Mattsey, said the commission lost about $80,000 in 2020. Its sole source of funding is a tax on local hotel room rentals, which Mattsey said will likely still be down in 2021.
Brigette Jones, the executive director of the tourism commission, said she has spoken with a few groups that are planning events early in the year, but January through March are typically slow months for the county because of unpredictable winter weather.
Waiting to make a decision on accepting grant applications, Jones said, makes sense because the next few months will be crucial in determining what happens next with the pandemic and what continued impact it will have on Hancock County. Both the speed of vaccination progress and new policies introduced by the incoming administration of President Joe Biden could be major factors, she said.
“We are hoping that people will be able to have some sort of in-person event,” Jones said.
Jones said organizations have found creative ways to hold events digitally, such as by moving 5K runs online, and that the tourism commission would consider funding those as well.
Hancock County’s two biggest events, each of which attract a large number of visitors to the county, are both hoping for in-person gatherings this year.
Cheryl Jones, director of Purdue Extension Hancock County, said organizers are tentatively planning to host an in-person 4-H fair this year, although that is subject to change depending on developments in the coming months. The fair is scheduled for June 18-25.
David Berard, president of the board of the Riley Festival Association, said he is optimistic the festival can be held in person in 2021. The event is scheduled for Oct. 7-10.
“We’re going to keep going ahead unless we encounter something that we really can’t deal with,” he said.
Berard said the Riley Festival will begin seeking sponsorships for the event, as well as vendors. Much of its funding comes from renting booth space, and the organization also received a grant from the Indiana Arts Council last year, so he is confident the festival will have the financial resources it needs to go ahead.
Hancock County may also be able to benefit from events taking place in nearby communities. Indianapolis is set to be the main host of the entire NCAA men’s basketball tournament in March.
Brigette Jones said when Indianapolis holds a large event, Hancock County hotels and restaurants often benefit from patronage from people who can’t find a place to stay in the city or prefer staying outside the city. However, the NCAA has not yet made a decision about whether fans will be allowed to attend the games or whether attendance will be limited to players’ family members.
“We normally do get overflow,” she said. “With this one, it’s kind of an unknown.”
Even if only family members can attend the games, Jones said, some may opt to stay in Hancock County instead of in Indianapolis.
“We are looked at as being very safe; we don’t have the crime like what Indy has,” Jones said.
Hancock County’s reputation as a safe, friendly community is what the tourism commission is hoping to capitalize on with a new marketing campaign featuring the slogan “Hancock County Smiles.” The commission plans to produce a video featuring community members wearing custom masks decorated with the image of a smile, advertising the area as both welcoming and COVID-conscious.
“Now’s our time to kind of say, ‘Yeah, we’re here, we’re safe and we’ve got a lot of options,” Jones said.