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Nebraska bill aims to lure more out-of-staters to best but little-known tourism sites

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LINCOLN, Nebraska — At 43nd and Broadway in New York City, a digital super screen flashes with Nebraska landmarks: a rolling country road, a glassy lake, a blond-haired family circling a crackling campfire.

The 30-second clip, which will run in Times Square for the next 70 days, doesn't promote brick and mortar landmarks. It highlights "Nebraska Treasures," a unique brand of attractions the state tourism commission and Sen. Adam Morfeld hope can lure visitors to flyover country in time for the state's 150th birthday in 2017.

The Nebraska Treasures Act, a measure by Morfeld, would offer $1 million competitive grants to four sites that demonstrate the greatest potential to draw visitors to the state. Morfeld said the grants would help tourism groups sell their offerings to the world.

Tourism is the state's third-largest industry, creating $4.4 billion in travel expenses in 2013, but there appears to be room to grow.

A 2012 report presented to the Nebraska Tourism Commission found that of more than 500 travelers surveyed, more than 70 percent looked for relaxation and scenic beauty. But less than a quarter associated those qualities with Nebraska.

"There are so many great things to see in the state, but it's tough to get that message out," said Kearney Archway marketing director Jace Robinson. "People still, no matter what you say to them, don't really think they have a reason to come."

In 2013, the Great Platte River Road Archway, a western-expansion history museum bridging Interstate 80 near Kearney, filed for bankruptcy. The attraction owed bondholders $20 million and was in debt to about 100 other creditors.

Today, Robinson said the archway is on the rebound. Attendance hit 50,457 in 2014, a 1 percent increase from the previous year even though it was closed for two months. It's the highest yearly attendance since 2011. The archway brought in $700,000.

Robinson attributes the turnaround mostly to the 18-member Archway Society committee, a coalition of community and business leaders that raised enough money in pledges to help settle the attraction's bankruptcy case.

Members of the government committee considering Morfeld's bill questioned what would prevent newly designated treasures from facing similar problems.

PHOTO: FILE - In this April 25, 2006 file photo, The Great Platte River Road Archway spans Interstate 80 just east of Kearney, Neb. With the state's 150th anniversary approaching in two years, lawmakers are looking for ways to draw visitors, calling tourism Nebraska's third largest industry. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)
FILE - In this April 25, 2006 file photo, The Great Platte River Road Archway spans Interstate 80 just east of Kearney, Neb. With the state's 150th anniversary approaching in two years, lawmakers are looking for ways to draw visitors, calling tourism Nebraska's third largest industry. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

Morfeld said he is working with Sen. Joni Craighead of Omaha on an amendment that would require grant recipients to prove financial solvency.

Nebraska Tourism Commission executive director Kathy McKillip said the industry can only survive with continued backing from private groups and the state. Grant recipients would need to have proved they had established long-term partnerships.

"It's not about building a facility, it's about an endowment that can maintain the facility," McKillip said. "The building usually is the easy part. It's the long-term survival that's very difficult and is imperative in the planning process."

But the second component is not about the sites at all, McKillip said. It's about the people behind them. In May 2014, the organization launched the "Nebraska Nice" campaign with Nebraska advertising agency Bailey Lauerman.

Rural communities in the western panhandle can't compete with urban developments and they don't try, said Mike Kesselring, co-owner of High Plains Homestead. The western-style bunkhouse 16 miles north of Crawford offers a nostalgic ranch setting and home cooking.

"I think people are hungry for that kind of person-to-person contact," he said. "And we are lucky to have that kind of setting to put it in."

High Plains Homestead, tag-lined "where the west was won... quietly," has won Nebraska Travel awards and been featured on The Food Network and in Nebraska Life, Western Lodging, and The Fence Post magazines. Kesselring said attraction draws visitors from around the world.

Morfeld's bill would provide money to help maintain and promote existing tourism sites, rather than creating new ones.

"If we don't have developed facilities and attractions, people aren't going to stop," Morfeld said.

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The bill is LB562

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PHOTO: FILE - In this April 25, 2006 file photo, The Great Platte River Road Archway spans Interstate 80 just east of Kearney, Neb. With the state's 150th anniversary approaching in two years, lawmakers are looking for ways to draw visitors, calling tourism Nebraska's third largest industry. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)
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