R.I. program to provide $20M in tourism, arts relief draws criticism for focus on large hotels

PROVIDENCE Eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the beleaguered hotel industry in Rhode Island now has access to a dedicated program using federal COVID-19 impact aid to the state. But half of it is off-limits to all but the largest hotels in the state, under the Rhode Island Hotel, Arts & Tourism Grant Program unveiled by the R.I. Commerce Corp. last week.

The state program, seeded with $20 million in federal money, is intended to help the arts, tourism and lodging industry, and is divided into two portions. Half of the funds are available to businesses and nonprofits who can obtain state grants for events and activities, as well as vouchers for hotel stays.

Another $10 million is in the form of direct support payments to heavily impacted arts, culture, tourism organizations and the state’s largest hotels.

The applications are due within seven days. As of 8 p.m. Monday, the state had not yet activated the online application, although it was intended to be available on Nov. 2. The deadline for returning applications is Nov. 9.

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Industry observers and advocates say the state should do more, particularly for the smaller hotels which make up the bulk of the lodging industry in Rhode Island.

Under the program, to qualify for direct support payments, hotels have to have experienced at least a 70% loss in revenue, year-over-year, in the second and third quarters. And they have to have at least 200 guest rooms.

That is a select number in Rhode Island.

Only 13 hotels had 200 or more guest rooms in Rhode Island in 2019, according to the 2020 Providence Business News Book of Lists. They include the Omni Providence Hotel, the state’s largest, which has been closed since March, as well as nationally branded hotels in Providence, Warwick and Newport.

Qualifying arts and cultural organizations or businesses have to provide documentation that they’ve tried to secure outside funds, or made cuts to their budget, and commit to maintaining or increasing their current employment level. They have to have lost at least half of their revenue due to the pandemic and be large enough to support an annual operating budget of $150,000.

Kristen Adamo, CEO of the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the funding program is a step in the right direction, offering needed support to the arts and tourism industry. But she, too, questioned the division of hotels by size. “I’m hoping they rethink that one piece and make it a little more lenient. It does cut out a lot of the hotel community.”

State Rep. and House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, who represents Block Island in the General Assembly, said no hotel on the island will qualify under the definition. The state has smaller hotels, boutique hotels, that also need help and aren’t getting it through other aid programs established by the state.

“I don’t know why the little hotels have been squeezed out,” Filippi said. “Most of them have event business that’s been hurt, too. Smaller hotels make money off weddings, which have been decimated.”

A spokesman for R.I. Commerce Corp. explained that smaller hotels can still apply for funding grants through the Restore Rhode Island program, which recently was enlarged to allow up to $30,000 per business. That funding is also through the federal government, and like the hotel and arts funding, will have to be spent by Dec. 31.

Brian Hodge, R.I. Commerce RI spokesman, said all hotels, regardless of size, can also apply for the new program’s “engagement, service and resiliency” grants of up to $350,000.

To qualify for grants through the so-called ESR funds, a business or nonprofit has to have experienced year-over-year losses in the second and third quarters this year of at least 30%, and have to be open or plan to be open in the upcoming months. The funds can be used for hotel programming, discounts or activities that otherwise wouldn’t be possible, according to Hodge.

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Contact her at macdonald@pbn.com.