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Tennessee $250 flight vouchers meeting mixed reviews

Published: Jul. 7, 2021 at 8:52 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Tennessee is offering $250 airfare vouchers to entice visitors to the Volunteer State.

Critics say what’s good for tourists isn’t so great for Tennesseeans.

Governor Bill Lee appears almost giddy in the 30-second commercial promoting his new tourism campaign. But during the same week, Tennessee dropped the $300 federal unemployment benefit. Some state Democrats and even one high-ranking Republican, aren’t smiling.

With help from country superstar Brad Paisley, Lee launched “Tennessee on Me” this week.

“The state’s buying all these airline tickets and giving them away to anyone who books two nights in a hotel room,” said a smiling governor in the ad. Reserve at least two nights (Wednesday through Sunday) in a participating hotel in Memphis, Chattanooga, Nashville, or Knoxville, and Tennessee will give you a $250 airline voucher for American, Delta or Southwest.

“There are 10,000 vouchers and we hope to get our fair share,” said Moxy Hotel General Manager Curtis Pandes.

Pandes says they had to get creative after the hotel’s grand opening in March. Operating during the COVID-19 pandemic brought challenges, and he welcomes the state’s help, convincing out-of-town tourists to visit the Bluff City.

“We think it will bring in a good amount of business here to Memphis,” he said. “And not only support us with tax dollars coming in, but also support the hotels, restaurants, bars, and all the local attractions and the staff they employ.”

Lee’s pitch in the video is: “Magic, baby!”

But it’s anything but for Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer who expressed concern in a tweet that Memphis leadership is putting lots of eggs in the downtown basket. She called Lee’s plan a “free plane ticket scheme.”

State Representative London Lamar tweeted, “the state cut unemployment but giving away airline vouchers??? Whatttt!”

U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen expressed his shock in a tweet, “My governor is cutting unemployment and Medicaid for Tennesseans. Tennessee on Me? It’s Tennessee on Us...the taxpayers.”

It’s true, taxpayers are footing the bill for $2.5 million in plane vouchers, but supporters are quick to point out that Tennessee tourism generates even more tax revenue. Kevin Kane, the president and CEO of Memphis Tourism, said the tourism industry generated $23 billion in Tennessee in 2019, and that turned into almost $2 billion in state taxes. Kane and others also pointed out the money the state spent on plane vouchers comes from a completely different funding source than the federal unemployment payments.

“2.5 million dollars out of the tourism budget to promote tourism and give people extra incentive to come into the big four cities in the state of Tennessee, I think it’s a great investment,” said Kane.

Lt. Governor Randy McNally has his own reservations. He said he was not briefed on the details of the governor’s promotion before it launched. He released a statement saying in part, “It is especially troubling. The promotion is limited to our major cities when our rural areas were hit as hard, if not harder, by the economic crisis.”

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