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  • Last modified 1162 days ago (July 16, 2015)

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Buy in to cash in

Where, oh where, is Pilsen? It seems silly to ask — everyone knows where Pilsen is, right? Wrong, and that’s a wrong that can cost us.

Marion County economic development director Teresa Huffman is sold on tourism as a way to build the county’s economy, and she’s made believers out of many.

Who wouldn’t want people coming here to enjoy our beautiful landscapes and historical gems, eat at our restaurants, shop in our stores, and leave for home happy, enriched, and with lighter wallets? With what we have to offer, if we can get them here once, some of them will be back, they’ll bring friends, and they’ll tell others. I’m on board with that.

But if they can’t find someone to help them find Pilsen, or Durham, or Goessel, or any of the other towns in the county with tourist attractions, they’ll leave in a huff and won’t be back.

Pilsen is a case in point. Saturday I heard stories of people who came from out of state to visit the home church and museum of Father Emil Kapaun. They didn’t see the sign directing them up Remington Rd., so they came into Marion to ask, “How do we get to Pilsen?”

Not surprisingly, they stopped at our convenience stores. I learned while working at a gas station in college that attendants were considered experts in local geography. But we weren’t, and evidently neither were our folks in Marion. No one could tell these tourists how to get to Pilsen. So they left.

We had tourism professionals visit Marion last week, and they said two critical factors for promoting tourism were “money” and “community buy-in.”

It’s the latter that concerns me the most.

It’s hard to get community buy-in for Marion County as a tourist destination when our own citizens don’t know what or where attractions are. The lack of county knowledge citizens have is so widespread that the cover of the latest “Marion County Tourism and Resource Guide” features a picture of a dilapidated Chase County bridge on the way to Cedar Point.

It’s not a problem isolated to our county. Every place I’ve moved, from Chicago to Los Angeles, I’ve been met with blank stares when asking locals about supposedly well-known attractions. Some folks in St. Louis couldn’t tell me where the Gateway Arch was.

Every town has its “history gurus,” but they’re not posted at town entries waiting to direct people. Tourists wander into businesses, and when they have questions, they want answers. Folks need to know the answers, or know where to get them.

Expanding tourism depends on the experience people have when they come here. If communities don’t have “buy-in,” if tourists are frustrated rather than fulfilled, word gets out, and tourism goes nowhere.

So while we’re hard at work on making quilt blocks to hang on barns, perhaps we also need to devote more time and resources to creating a “tourist-friendly” environment in our county.

We already have good-natured, friendly people, but that’s not enough. Guides specific to each town with directions to major county attractions could be developed and distributed to businesses for reference. If someone comes in the door looking for the Father Kapaun museum, or the Mennonite Heritage Museum, or whatever, a “cheat sheet” could help get them to their destinations, and we sure don’t want to send them over a bridge to Cedar Point.

Among 17 counties in the Flint Hills region, Marion County took in just one percent of tourism dollars spent in 2013. There’s room to grow, and it will take money; money spent wisely. Building community buy-in will take money, too, but it would be money well invested.

If we’re going to sell ourselves to tourists, we have to sell ourselves on becoming a quality tourist destination, and that’s community buy-in.

— david colburn

Last modified July 16, 2015

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