After two months of thaw in March and April, business for Lincoln County’s hotels and motels burst out of its COVID-19 hibernation in May.
Their net lodging-tax collections for the pre-summer month totaled $101,999, setting an all-time May record and beating the combined $91,551 from March through May 2020 during the pandemic’s strictest health restrictions.
“We were excited about that,” said Lisa Burke, executive director of the North Platte/Lincoln County Visitors Bureau. “It’s indicative of people finally traveling and needing to travel.”
May also wrapped up North Platte’s best-ever 12-month period for city sales taxes, according to the latest monthly totals from the Nebraska Department of Revenue.
Net collections for the month totaled $826,906, trailing only March’s $849,683 in online month-to-month records dating to 2006.
North Platte’s 1.5% city sales tax has netted $9,086,216 since last June, when it ended its own COVID-19 slump by crashing through the $800,000 monthly barrier for the first time.
North Platte has set 10 monthly sales tax records over that time — four of them over $800,000 — while crushing its best calendar-year performance of $8.36 million for all of 2020.
Annual totals have topped $8 million only three other times, in 2015, 2018 and 2019.
The Revenue Department collects and reconciles county lodging and local sales taxes. It deducts small percentages of each for processing costs before sending net payments back to counties and cities about six weeks after each month ends.
Local leaders have credited North Platte’s sales tax surge to renewed local shopping during the pandemic, as well as stronger state laws on online sales tax collections that began to show their impact as COVID-19 took hold.
But nothing could help Lincoln County’s hotels and motels recover except more overnight stays from Interstate 80 travelers.
Their relative absence during the pandemic caused a 27.4% annual drop in net lodging taxes for all of 2020. Recovery finally began as winter ended, with net March and April collections both topping $70,000.
May’s $101,999 marked not only the county’s first six-figure month since August 2019 — the end of the last pre-pandemic summer — but also the first month to crack $100,000 outside the peak tourism months of June, July and August.
“We expect June to be very good as well” when that month’s figures are announced in mid-August, Burke said.
Room rates are rising at the county’s hotels and motels, she added, offering another indicator that Americans are hitting the roads again.
The Visitors Bureau had to curtail many of its usual marketing efforts when lodging taxes fell off last year, Burke said. State law dictates that both state and local lodging taxes be used for tourism promotion.
As tourist forecasts brightened early this year, she said, the bureau resumed its grants to support local events and upgrade facilities at local attractions.
Convention and tour-bus business hasn’t entirely bounced back yet, Burke said, though it appears they’ll be closer to normal levels by fall.
“It’s definitely exciting” to have tourists coming through in greater numbers, she said. “We can definitely tell by the traffic that’s in our office and visitors coming to the Visitors Center. It’s been good.”
More by Todd von Kampen
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This was the first time in my career I've covered a murder from the beginning. The case has kept reader interest, as well.
One of the most memorable court hearings in 2020: The victim's father had a lot to say to the man accused of killing his son.
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I included this on the list for a simple reason: It is a case that generated reader interest from the initial arrest and continues to do so.