Local governments, nonprofits adjust plans amid pandemic’s financial toll

Walkers visit city-owned Gray's Lake Park on April 1, 2020. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The socioeconomic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic can be seen in a homeless shelter at the State Fairgrounds, bigger demand for county aid, laid-off librarians, a growing array of online concerts and busy recreation trails in Greater Des Moines.

Local governments and nonprofit organizations, like so many businesses, are adjusting on the fly.

In a series of meetings and interviews, Iowa Capital Dispatch chronicled a few of the efforts. Some of this information came from an online meeting of the Taxpayers Association of Central Iowa on Wednesday. 

Few hotel bookings = trouble for cities, the arts

The light business at hotels and motels while travel is limited means a large drop in hotel-motel taxes.

In Polk County, that means the Greater Des Moines Partnership has raised the prospect of asking state lawmakers to extend a deadline for loan repayment on the Hilton downtown convention hotel, which relies on the taxes as part of its finance package.

Sally Dix, who runs Bravo Greater Des Moines, said the organization is in for a challenging multi-year run, as are the cultural organizations it supports.

“Since Bravo is 99% funded with hotel/motel revenue and does not do any additional fundraising so we don’t compete with limited resources with the organizations we support, there’s no way around the future looking rough for Bravo and the cultural sector that relies on the essential public funds we steward,” Dix said in an interview. 

Des Moines City Manager Scott Sanders reported to city officials that hotel-motel taxes related to the city’s Bravo support would be down $1.2 million. The city itself expects to lose $2.1 million in hotel-motel taxes for its own operations over just the first couple of months of reduced operations.

Dix said she expects a drop in support from Des Moines. Other cities in the county contribute hotel-motel taxes and are likely to run into shortfalls. 

“We won’t get there this year and next year is incredibly uncertain, but we know it will take a while for travel and tourism to pick back up,” Dix said. 

Dix had good news for this year, however. “I’m proud to say that Bravo will be able to honor 100% of our 2020 grant commitments, which will amount to about $4.3 million this year. We have also been able to advance payments to any cultural partner that requested early release of funds, which infused more than $1.5 million into the nonprofit cultural sector in Greater Des Moines in the last five weeks,” she said.

Donate stimulus checks?

At least one West Des Moines church sent a note to members suggesting that they consider donating some or all of their $1,200 federal stimulus check to charity. 

One West Des Moines church emailed this appeal: “Many of us are receiving stimulus checks. And some of us aren’t relying on those checks because the virus hasn’t changed our income. Many folks at the Methodist church in Des Moines have decided that the local food pantry would benefit more from their stimulus checks, and they’re inviting you to consider the same. Now is the time to ask how you can make a difference!”

Church leaders have worried that donations would drop sharply when members couldn’t sit in the church pews for services. Many churches have established online giving to go along with online services.

Raising the curtain, virtually

Des Moines Performing Arts, which operates the Civic Center, has been offering online performances and educational offerings at #ProjectJoy.

In a letter this week, President and CEO Jeff Chelesvig said the shows are off for now, but “the lights are still on” and DMPA’s staff is working.

“We like to think of this as just the intermission,” Chelesvig wrote. 

Des Moines Performing Arts has been offering clips of performances online, some with curricula that can be used with students.

Laying off librarians

In a city report, Sanders estimated the pandemic would cost the city of Des Moines at least $18 million in taxes and fees related to gas sales, commercial developments, retail purchases, hotel bookings and other sources.

The pandemic hit soon after the city had successfully won voter approval for a local sales tax that figured to greatly improve the city’s financial outlook. In return, the city planned to reduce its property tax rate. 

To keep that promise, the city laid off its library staff while the libraries were closed. Many capital improvements are likely to be delayed, too, Sanders told city officials.

Homeless shelter at the Iowa State Fairgrounds

Polk County announced earlier that it would turn the Oman Family Youth Inn at the Iowa State Fairgrounds into a shelter for homeless people with COVID-19.

Only a couple of people showed up. But Polk County Supervisor Robert Brownell said the county may use the facility for a shelter with the broader purpose of keeping homeless people separated to help contain the pandemic. It could also be used for people living in crowded homes in which someone may have been exposed to the virus, he added.

Brownell said the county also changed rules so that more people qualified for general assistance for rent and other basic expenses. 

Community Foundation disaster fund grows

The Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines has activated its standing Disaster Recovery Fund, which has raised more than $843,000 for response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The most recent assistance from the fund was a $75,000 grant to the Central Iowa Immigrant Community Support Fund, an initiative of American Friends Service Committee Iowa, Al Exito and Proteus. 

The organizations are supporting “ the most marginalized Central Iowans who have needs that fall outside of government guidelines or who do not qualify for government assistance resources,” according to a news release.

The money will help families pay rent, utilities, pharmacy bills and transportation costs, for example. 

The fund is run with the help of United Way of Central Iowa, Polk County Emergency Management Agency, American Red Cross-Central Iowa Chapter, IMPACT, Polk County and Community Family and Youth Services-Polk County.

County digs in to reserves

Brownell said the county has reserves that can cover a few months of the bond payments for the Iowa Events Center and the Hilton convention hotel while Prairie Meadows is closed and hotel-motel revenue is down. If the closures drag on, the situation could become more complicated, he said. 

Brownell also noted that the $2 million the county usually gets from the operators of the Iowa Events Center likely will be far less this year as concerts and events have been postponed or canceled. For example, Elton John’s sold-out June 11 show has been postponed until next year.

And confirming a trend seen in state and city parks, Brownell reported that cell phone data have found that the number of people using Polk County parks is up 150%, with trail use at the parks up 200%. 

Concerts go online

Nationally, YouTube and Facebook have been full of concerts featuring artists ranging from trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, Neil Diamond, John Fogerty, Canadian Brass and many others. 

Locally, Noce jazz club in downtown Des Moines has had a whole series of concerts while requesting online donations. 

HomeDitty, which helps homeowners book shows and stages some itself, has had two virtual concerts, said proprietor Katie Byers. One, staged by Des Moines City Councilman Carl Voss and his wife, Susan, featured Mystery Loves Company. Katie and her husband, Greater Des Moines Partnership CEO Jay Byers, booked an online show featuring Weep & Willow (which includes Miles Nielsen, son of Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen) for April 25. 

The Byers family hosted B2wins for an earlier online show, and have a May 3 show in the works featuring a different band. 

In an interview, HomeDitty founder Katie Byers said keeping the concerts rolling has been a challenge because social distancing has meant focusing on music groups whose members happen to live together. She is testing a national rollout for online shows, making sure the video feeds are strong.

HomeDitty’s house concerts were suspended for March and April. Byers said she will continue to offer virtual concerts as an option in May, even if COVID-related restrictions on gatherings are lifted after the current April 30 expiration. 

The concerts featured $10 tickets, lower than the typical $20 suggested donation, but attendees were asked to pay more if they could.