There's no "if we build it they will come" approach for Midlands cities and towns that are using tourism to bring jobs, increase visitors and, at the same time, leverage dollars to increase the quality of life for residents and businesses.
Strategic tourism development is increasingly a major economic force in many Midlands cities and towns. "Facilities, natural attractions and events are three major drivers when it comes to tourism as an economic development tool," says Sumter Mayor Joe McElveen, Municipal Association president. "Tourism related facilities and activities should serve the purpose of both visitors and residents. When a city or town holds an event and generates outside interest for the community - not to mention outside dollars - many positives can result."
McElveen points out Sumter's Swan Lake Iris Gardens is by far the most popular tourist destination in Sumter County with walking trails, wildlife and natural habitats for park visitors to experience. Both locals and visitors alike benefit from Swan Lake which is the only public park in the United States to feature all eight swan species. The park is also home to some of the nation's most intensive plantings of Japanese iris.
Swan Lake Visitors Center, City of Sumter
The 150 acres of land were donated to the city by two local families between 1927 and 1949. "Since then, the development has taken place through accommodations and hospitality tax dollars, the local penny sales tax and some local donations and sponsorships," says McElveen.
Expansion and renovation at Swan Lake continue, increasing its attractiveness by adding visitor amenities and attractions every year. "Recovery," a 14-foot sculpture by acclaimed local artist Grainger McKoy was added in 2010 using a combination of penny sales and hospitality tax plus local partnerships with businesses and organizations. The Swan Lake Visitors Center serves as the only designated visitor information center in the city or county and was built using a combination of hospitality tax and local partnerships funding as well.
"Recovery" sculpture, City of Sumter
Sumter's Swan Lake Gardens are a win/win for locals and visitors, says McElveen. "From an economic development perspective, the Gardens help us bring new dollars and new people into our community. From the perspective of residents and businesses, the Gardens add a quality of life amenity that is so important to people when deciding where to live and work."
The City of Newberry has successfully leveraged an historic landmark to anchor its downtown district to benefit tourists and the local community. The 426-seat Newberry Opera House hosts more than 270 performances and 100,000 visitors annually.
Deborah Smith, long-time director of the Newberry Opera House points out, "Our mission is directed toward the economic and cultural development of Newberry County and the Midlands. The main thing our founders wanted was an economic engine for downtown Newberry. The Opera House has now become a real marketing arm for the city, the county and the entire region."
Smith credits city officials for using the local accommodations tax to allow the Opera House to advertise and promote its programs in the county, state and regionally. "Now more than 100,000 visitors come through the Opera House doors annually, and we are able to support our downtown restaurants, merchants and hotels. We have developed downtown as a tourism center with some of the best restaurants in the state, a major hotel chain and support for downtown businesses that likely wouldn't have happened without the Opera House as a strong and consistent tourism draw."
In Blythewood, Doko Meadows is the town's new 25-acre park that is part of a 10-year vision to create a center of community activity for recreation, music and arts, celebration events, cook offs and competitions. "Our goal for this park facility is for it to be "a place within a place" where locals and visitors can come and enjoy individual and group activities," says Mayor Michael Ross.
One of the first realities of the park is the Manor at Doko Meadows that opened in March 2013 as a 7500-square foot venue that has already hosted more than 100 events as diverse as Rotary Club meetings, wedding receptions, festivals and bridal showcases. The Manor at Doko Meadows also exhibits local artists" work and showcases natural assets that attract locals and visitors alike.
The park and the manor facility are used by residents and tourists so the funding of the project is supported both by town general funds as well as accommodations and hospitality tax revenues.
"The dollars tourists bring to the community by visiting a facility like the Manor at Doko Meadows help grow the local economy and make the community more attractive to bring in even more visitors. This in turn increases the quality of life and the quality of services available to residents and businesses," says John Perry, town administrator.
This article originally appeared in the November issue of the Columbia Business Monthly magazine.