The Douglas County Board on Tuesday approved allocating about $2.5 million in tourism grants among 54 nonprofit or government entities.
The county had received nearly $4.6 million in grant requests from 64 entities.
The county's seven-member visitor promotion council makes the annual grant recommendations, which are approved by the County Board.
Among the largest grants:
Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, $265,000; Joslyn Art Museum, $163,500; Omaha Symphony, $158,500; Omaha Performing Arts, $115,500; Omaha Sports Commission, $100,000; Nebraska Golf Foundation, $100,000; Durham Museum, $96,000; Omaha Community Playhouse, $86,500; College World Series, $82,000; River City Rodeo, $82,000; Septemberfest, $82,000; and Omaha Children's Museum, $80,000.
More than 35 of the 2012-13 individual grants ranged from $5,000 to $50,000. Eight first-time applicants received money, totaling $81,500, said Michael Leahy, chairman of the visitor promotion council.
Before Tuesday's vote, representatives of Omaha's hospitality and lodging industry complained about the current method of awarding tourism grants.
Bill Farrell of the downtown Hilton Garden Inn said all recipients should show the county whether their grants increased revenue and tax dollars for the county's visitor improvement fund.
“This is an investment fund,” Farrell said. “I really think you should treat it like one.”
Susan Madsen of the Embassy Suites in the Old Market said more accountability and oversight are needed. She referred to a $100,000 grant to Special Olympics USA in 2009.
At the time of that award, Special Olympics USA planned to host its June 2010 Games at Creighton University. That would have generated hotel tax revenue for Douglas County.
Instead, the Special Olympics ran into location problems and was moved to Lancaster County. Last year, Douglas County reached a $50,000 settlement with the national organization to resolve a legal dispute.
Rick Kubat, assistant Douglas County manager, said two of the seven members of the visitor council represent Omaha's hotel and hospitality industry. Kubat said the county reviews canceled checks and other documents to ensure that grant recipients use the tourism funds appropriately.
County Board member Chris Rodgers said attracting people to Omaha's hotels is not the sole criterion for selecting grant recipients. If it were, all the grant money could be given to the College World Series or Henry Doorly Zoo, he said.
“It's not an exact science,” Rodgers said of awarding grants. “I think it's very subjective to some degree.”
The board also adopted a resolution prohibiting future applicants from receiving grants if they fail to meet the application deadline. This year, a handful of applications arrived late, but they were approved for grants anyway.
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