Information on the New EDA Grant Money for Travel, Tourism, and Outdoor Recreation Sectors (United States)

By Jack Johnson, Destinations International

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 11, 2021, to provide economic relief in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislation authorizes an additional $3 billion in assistance through the Economic Development Administration (EDA) to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus and for necessary expenses for responding to economic injury because of coronavirus.” Of this, $750 million is for assistance “to States and communities that have suffered economic injury as a result of job and gross domestic product losses in the travel, tourism, or outdoor recreation sectors.”

While this represents targeted money for our industry, it is not earmarked for destination organizations specifically. Instead, it is an attempt to fund destination organizations by fitting it into an existing government program that was designed to help government and their economic development commissions – with a strong focus on manufacturing. Destination organizations that are nonprofit organizations, part of a state or local government, or a political subdivision of a state or local government can apply for these funds. As can other nonprofits, state, or local governments (or their political subdivisions), economic development districts (EDDs), territories and tribal governments, and institutions of higher education. Be aware - there will be competition for these dollars.

Destination Organizations have traditionally had difficulty obtaining grant money through this channel.  But unlike previously, that targeting of the $750 million should improve a destination organization’s chances in being awarded a grant. In addition, groups like Destinations International and the U.S. Travel Association have been working hard to get very clear instructions from the leadership of the US Department of Commerce to the EDA and their local offices that would increase the likelihood of being able to access grant money. These instructions are expected to come in mid to late May and grant requests will begin to be accepted around that time.

Any grant process can be time consuming and often a difficult process. And like any serious project, it is worth doing some homework so when the time comes to put in your application, you phrase it, position it to match what the EDA looks for. Let us start with the exact language that is in the American Rescue Plan Act. The following is the exact language from H.R.1319 (The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021). We added the highlighting.

“SEC. 6001. ECONOMIC ADJUSTMENT ASSISTANCE.

  1. Economic Development Administration Appropriation.—In addition to amounts otherwise available, there is appropriated for fiscal year 2021, out of any money in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated, $3,000,000,000, to remain available until September 30, 2022, to the Department of Commerce for economic adjustment assistance as authorized by sections 209 and 703 of the Public Works and Economic Development Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C. 3149 and 3233) to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus and for necessary expenses for responding to economic injury as a result of coronavirus.
  2. Of the funds provided by this section, up to 2 percent shall be used for Federal costs to administer such assistance utilizing temporary Federal personnel as may be necessary consistent with the requirements applicable to such administrative funding in fiscal year 2020 to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus and which shall remain available until September 30, 2027.
  3. Of the funds provided by this section, 25 percent shall be for assistance to States and communities that have suffered economic injury as a result of job and gross domestic product losses in the travel, tourism, or outdoor recreation sectors.”

Next, I would spend some time on the EDA site to understand what they value and how they speak.  I would start with their Value Proposition Statement.

  • EDA Makes It Easier for Businesses to Start and Grow in the U.S. EDA’s investments in planning, technical assistance, infrastructure and capacity building support business start-up and expansion to enable towns and cities all across the country to build strong, durable and resilient local economies that produce good wages for American workers.
  • EDA Matching Grants Start with Local Business Conditions and Needs – Not Washington’s. Instead of a Washington-knows-best approach, EDA works hand-in-hand with local economic development partners to advance their locally developed projects which are linked to the region’s long-term, sustainable economic development strategy. Partnering with EDA, these priority projects often can be implemented in a short timeframe.
  • EDA Drives Innovation and Entrepreneurship Throughout Our Country, Especially in Our Manufacturing Sector, to Help U.S. Workers and Businesses Compete Globally. From grants that help build rail lines, improve wastewater treatment facilities, or construct buildings and roads – EDA invests in the critical infrastructure needed by businesses to locate or expand in the U.S., generating thousands of middle-class jobs in areas of the country that need them the most. EDA also makes strategic investments that equip American workers with the skills new or expanding businesses need to be successful. Through its network of regionally based staff and a portfolio of flexible investment mechanisms, EDA helps hundreds of communities, especially those suffering economic distress, take control of their future.

You will notice an emphasis on investments in planning, technical assistance, infrastructure, and capacity building. This suggest that two types of projects right off the bat that would be acceptable would be the development of a strategic plan, particularly a destination plan or work on a building such as a convention center – installation of air filters and other related health changes, installation of video capabilities, better Wi-Fi, and retrofitting the facility in a number of ways.

Furthermore, they seek to build strong, durable, and resilient local economies and define this by the ability to produce good wages. Please note that many still believe that our industry only creates low paying jobs. This job development is key to their definition of “resilience” so go out of your way to dispel this idea. Also, here is the perfect place to use your ROI statement and figures!

They like locally developed projects which are linked to the region’s long-term, sustainable economic development strategy.  In other words, how does your project fit into the bigger picture. If there is a local economic development commission, linking or working with them will be a plus and in some cases required. The same goes for local government.

They also like projects that can be implemented in a short amount of time. This is where we excel.  No other industry can produce an impact as quickly as we can. In the year investing for in the year results! Highlight this along with the ideas in the blog post - Our Industry’s Economic Recovery Elevator Pitch.

There is a lot of language about traditional infrastructure. The EDA like those programs. While there are very few of these that are on a destination organization to do list, there are a few like that highway needing to be built in the Myrtle Beach area.

Most of all though, the EDA is looking for things that 1) create jobs - middle-class jobs, 2) equip workers with new skills, and 3) seeks to relieve economic distress.  Destination promotion does this.  A plan to reintroduce your region to the visitors would seem to meet this, research on how to do this best would seem to meet this, and a hospitality industry training program that includes work on career paths would seem to meet this.

The other thing I would spend specific time looking at is their Investment Priorities.

Through its competitive grant process, EDA evaluates all project applications to determine the extent to which they:

  • Align with EDA’s investment priorities,
  • Effectively address the creation and/or retention of high-quality jobs, and
  • Document that the applicant can or will leverage other resources, both public and private, and Demonstrate the applicant’s capacity to commence the proposed project promptly, to use funds quickly and effectively, and provide a clear scope of work that includes a description of specific, measurable project outputs.

EDA’s investment priorities are designed to provide an overarching framework to guide the agency’s investment portfolio to ensure its investments contribute the strongest positive impact on sustainable regional economic growth and diversification. Competitive applications will be responsive to the evaluation criteria listed under each individual funding announcement, including at least one of the following investment priorities:

  1. Recovery & Resilience: Projects that assist with economic resilience (including business continuity and preparedness) and long-term recovery from natural disasters and economic shocks to ensure U.S. communities are globally competitive.
  2. Critical Infrastructure: Projects that establish the fundamental building blocks of a prosperous and innovation-centric economy and a secure platform for American business, including physical (e.g., broadband, energy, roads, water, sewer) and other economic infrastructure.
  3. Workforce Development & Manufacturing: Projects that support the planning and implementation of infrastructure for skills-training centers and related facilities that address the hiring needs of the business community -- particularly in the manufacturing sector -- with a specific emphasis on the expansion of apprenticeships and work-and-learn training models. Also includes projects that encourage job creation and business expansion in manufacturing, including infrastructure-related efforts that focus on advanced manufacturing of innovative, high-value products and enhancing manufacturing supply chains.
  4. Exports & FDI: Primarily infrastructure projects that enhance community assets (e.g., port facilities) to support growth in U.S. exports and increased foreign direct investment—and ultimately the return of jobs to the United States.
  5. Opportunity Zones: Planning and implementation projects aimed at attracting private investment – including from Opportunity Funds – to grow businesses and create jobs in Census tracts that have been designated as Opportunity Zones.

Again, infrastructure is highly valued as is projects related to manufacturing.  Not exactly destination organizations stuff.  I would focus in on the first point - Recovery & Resilience. “Projects that assist with economic resilience (including business continuity and preparedness) and long-term recovery from natural disasters and economic shocks to ensure U.S. communities are globally competitive.” Therefore, destination organizations need to lean into their greater role. Remember our cornerstone statement:

“Every community must compete with every other community for their share of the world’s attention, customers and investment. To compete, people need to be aware of a community, have a positive impression, and want to visit to experience the community and meet its people.  This is achieved through clearly developing, articulating, and managing the community’s brand. Efforts must be made to promote, market, sell and engage potential visitors. And all of this must be reinforced again and again. Destination organizations are uniquely positioned to do this. Addressing this need for destination promotion is for the benefit and well-being of every person in a community. It is a common good. It is an essential investment to develop opportunities and build quality of life to benefit all the residents of a community.”

We do “economic resilience.” We do “long term recovery.” And we do “globally competitive.” It is in our DNA.

There is more to find on the EDA website, and I encourage you to spend some time there if you are planning on putting in an EDA grant request. Be sure to review the Eligibility of Destination Marketing Organizations for EDA Assistance which was released this past June. Note that this does not consider the new legislation. Finally, be sure to watch EDA CARES ACT Overview Webinar Recording. While the new grant process may not be identical to this, they will be very similar.

About Jack:

As Chief Advocacy Officer, Jack Johnson manages the overall public policy operations at Destinations International including member advocacy education and training, development of destination tools and best practices, coalition work with peer organizations, industry research and related public affairs activities.  He also oversees the board governance, the Destination Management Accreditation Program (DMAP) and the DestinationNEXT (Assessments and Planning) Program. Johnson brings unrivaled experience developing innovative strategies, policy solutions and civic consensus for government, not-for-profits and small businesses.

Johnson has received numerous accolades including being named as one of Successful Meetings’ 25 Most Influential People in the Meetings Industry in 2018 for his work on opposing travel boycotts and bans. Currently, his work around positioning destination organizations as a shared value in each of their communities and speaking with a new lexicon based on the emotion-driven by those values has made him one of the leading voices of the travel industry.

During his previous tenure with Choose Chicago, Johnson played a leading role in the extensive reforms of the McCormick Place Convention Center and the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau, resulting in a new convention center operating model with both a travel industry and a citywide civic perspective. Johnson was integrally involved in the merger of the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau and the Chicago Office of Tourism, resulting in maximizing their resources, unifying the message and embedding the organization into the city’s economic development strategy.