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Flags from some of the 168 countries that Nebraska can form trade agreements with hang at the International Visitors Center on Thursday at the Husker Harvest Days site west of Grand Island. Economic development information on either a state, area, or local level is available here, along with speakers through the first two days of the show. (Independent/Barrett Stinson)

As local businesses look to June to open again, business leaders are considering how to restore confidence in Grand Island and inspire tourists nationwide to return to the city.

Grand Island in April became an object of national attention for having one of the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 cases at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

A stigma likely surrounds the city now.

“When you make national press as a community you’d like it to be for things that you’re doing that are innovative, creative or amazingly successful,” said Cindy Johnson, Grand Island Area Chamber of Commerce president.

Tourism is crucial to Grand Island during the summer months.

“We have our normal tourism that any community does from manufacturing, health care, business meetings, but the events that happen primarily through the warm weather months are absolutely critical to the tourism industry here in town,” said Brad Mellema, Grand Island Convention & Visitors Bureau executive director.

The impact of shows and vendors canceling in the wake of the coronavirus has been great.

“Every event that cancels is like another stinging point for the community,” Mellema said. “Every event represents dollars, but it also represents that loss in confidence.”

The coronavirus has been damaging for Grand Island’s Fonner Park.

“We’ve had nearly 50 events cancel within the last two or three months,” said Chris Kotulak, Fonner Park chief operating officer, “and those are things like major livestock shows to wedding receptions and graduations and a number of other events that would bring a tremendous amount of tourism and commerce into Grand Island.”

Some events have not yet been canceled, including the 4-H state horse show, the Hall County Fair and a large cattle show in July.

“These shows hang in the balance right now,” Kotulak said, “and rather than just letting them hang in uncertainty, I’m trying to provide information on how these shows might function, how they might be adapted to be conducted in consideration of COVID-19.”

Without a firm date for moving forward, though, it is hard to coordinate events.

“I understand the leaders have good reason to be uncertain themselves,” Kotulak said. “My role here at Fonner Park is to try to provide them with as much useful information they can have to make a decision.”

The urgency of such decisions weighs greatly on the community’s leaders.

“The challenge with some of these invites is that their decisions need to be made now. If it’s a national show, they need to make decisions now for July,” Johnson said. “We really have to listen carefully, be thoughtful in our considerations and be agile if needed.”

Inspiring renewed tourism to Grand Island begins with building confidence in the city.

“Yes, we’ve been hit hard by the virus and that has been obviously in the news and we do hear it from groups and events that had things scheduled here. The virus continues to steal things off of our calendars, and that’s difficult,” Mellema said. “The reality is, life in Grand Island isn’t much different than any other community as long as you use the protocols. They’re the same here as they are anywhere.”

He added, “There’s a lot of good things happening here, and that will continue to be the case.”

That confidence must be felt among the community itself, as well.

“We want people who live here to begin to have a sense of confidence that the activities that are here have a way that is safe and appropriate for them to begin to gather again,” Mellema said. “Once Grand Island has confidence in itself, that will go out to the surrounding communities that are so important to those events, and then to a broader audience.”

A key quality of the community is its ability to overcome hardships as one, Johnson said.

“One thing COVID has taught us is that we’re a very resilient community that pulls together in times of crisis, and we’ve seen that before,” she said.

The chamber is working to foster greater communication among the city’s businesses during the pandemic.

“We need to ensure that they are aware that Grand Island is better than we were before,” Johnson said. “Businesses are looking at how nimble they were, how agile they were during this crisis, and their response to it. They’re analyzing if there are ways they can be doing business differently.”

Many Grand Island businesses are ready to reopen, she said, with floors striped and staff trained to frequently sterilize surfaces and stay safe with protective wear.

“They’re looking for resources that delineate specifically what they might be expected to do or could do to ensure the safety of their employees and their customers,” Johnson said.

Guidelines are available to businesses from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as state and local resources, she said.

The chamber also has documents ready for when businesses can begin re-opening.

“If the numbers keep trending down, we’ll roll it out next week so that people can start thinking about what re-opening looks like,” Johnson said.

A meeting is planned this week, bringing together the efforts of the Nebraska State Fair, Fonner Park, Husker Harvest Days, the Hall County Fair and Downtown Association, among others, to begin working on protocols for events.

“Part of the reason we want to work together is instead of having six calls to the mayor or the county health officials, we can perhaps place one call to them to give them the information that we’re beginning to pull together as a group so decisions can be made about how those events are going to look for attendees and vendors,” Mellema said.

Key to such efforts is not acting in haste.

“Today, we’re not pushing people to come to Grand Island,” he said. “We are waiting for the green light from our officials to do it, and with our major events to find the proper protocols for how those events might look.”

It is a balancing act for the city, Johnson said.

“To me, it’s always best to live on the side of caution,” she said. “What we don’t want to do is put people through the emotional and financial stress of being that vehicle that sputters. We want a nice, smooth transition back to our normal.”

Mellema is hopeful events can resume this summer, though they would be modified or look different.

“We would love to see things late summer into early fall, be able to have some kind of presence here,” he said. “I certainly hope that is going to be the case.”

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