From Bill Freeman

Donald Trump and Gov. Bill Lee, April 2020

Gov. Bill Lee recently announced that the state will be footing the bill for 10,000 tourists’ airfare if they visit one of Tennessee’s four largest cities. Neither Lt. Gov. Randy McNally nor Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton was aware of this project prior to Lee’s announcement, and both of them have expressed their concerns with the program. 

Marketing tourism to out-of-state visitors isn’t a bad idea. We’ve successfully done it for decades and have seen our cities and state thrive as a result. However, this program is off-kilter, and even our GOP officials have seen it. McNally in particular questioned why the governor would emphasize tourism to our cities when our rural areas have been hit as hard, if not harder, than our cities have by the economic fallout of the pandemic. 

Our cities have well-funded tourism budgets and are poised to address the major hit our hospitality industry has suffered. For instance, the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp’s total revenue, according to its federal tax filings, was more than $33 million in 2018. That compares well to the budget for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, which was $25.6 million in the FY 2021 state budget

The timing of the announcement of this program — called Tennessee on Me — was undeniably callous, coming on the same day as federal pandemic unemployment assistance was ending for Tennesseans. The assistance ended at the direction of Gov. Lee, who chose to opt Tennesseans out of this targeted support for those whose lives have been upended by the pandemic and its financial and employment repercussions. 

The timing was also ironic, as Lee made the announcement just prior to Nashville’s Fourth of July celebration — attended by hundreds of thousands of attendees, who presumably footed their own bill to travel to Nashville for what the city says is the largest fireworks celebration in the country. These visitors, who decided to come and enjoy Nashville’s events and festivities, did so without being lured by free airfare — airfare that’s going to be paid for by tax dollars straight from the pockets of hardworking Tennesseans.

Besides being callous and ironic, this PR stunt is also looking quite unnecessary. Nashville’s tourism has bounced back well since we’ve been able to safely ease travel and public gathering restrictions. Air travel at BNA has surpassed pre-pandemic levels — the average counts of screened departures are now higher than before the pandemic, and according to the Metro Nashville Airport Authority, “the number of nonstop routes is at a record high.” Looking at nothing but our airport’s current successes, it is clear that Nashville’s tourism is well on its way to recovery. 

Tennesseans both Republican and Democrat have written letters to The Tennessean’s editor to express their disgust over this situation. One letter asked: “Is Tennessee so bad as a state that we must pay people to come visit us? Are the attractions in Tennessee so poor that no one wants to enjoy them?”

So let’s get this straight. Gov. Lee surprised everyone — his own GOP state leaders included — when he announced that he’s giving away taxpayer dollars to make it rain for out-of-state tourists. Forget that many Tennesseans cannot afford groceries or their electric bills, much less airfare for a vacation. Vacations are a faraway dream for Tennesseans who are struggling to make ends meet — especially those Tennesseans who are right now trying to adjust to the elimination of federally funded pandemic unemployment support that Lee chose to opt us out of. 

The governor’s Tennessee on Me program should’ve been named Tennessee on You and Me, since we’re the ones footing the bill. In the light of the substantial budgets operating in the state and even in Nashville for tourism development, this $2.5 million program is relatively small. But what gets to me is that this money, which would have certainly exceeded the tourism budgets in practically every rural county in the state, isn’t going to help Tennesseans. Lee has chosen not to accept the United States’ offer of unemployment assistance, but he’s more than willing to gamble millions on improving tourism figures — which are improving all by themselves. 

It’s salt in the wound for many Tennesseans. 

Imagine what our food banks could have done with $2.5 million. Tennessee on Me doesn’t make much sense, and Lee’s continued Trump-like behavior — placing politics and PR stunts over people — has become more and more shameful.  

Bill Freeman

Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.

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