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Heritage Tourism Development

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How the economic recession might be

the silver lining for heritage tourism


Jacqueline L. Evans

Tourism in America  -  especially tourism development -  has had many challenges over the past few decades but nothing like the change in our retail industry beginning in the 60’s, together with the slump in our economy and corresponding employment in recent years. 

The economic and social hurdles facing our country have toppled businesses and turned dreams into nightmares.  But could some of this have possibly happened because we were not accustomed to “turning on a dime” so to speak.  Not accustomed to anything less than success and easy living?

Since 9/11 historians have concluded that our future wasn’t changed because of terrorism but, rather, because we took too long to bounce back from the attacks on our country.  National events paralyzed our development and progress to a certain extent and evidence of this has been strongly felt in the tourism industry.

Looking back over the events of 9/11, another paradigm has been created for the America’s heart and soul – its entrepreneurs . 

In 1960, many U.S. cities were introduced to big box giant retailers and consumers were introduced to low prices made possible by big box buying power.  Families were now able to purchase products that might have previously been unaffordable and, while the new giants may not have always produced products built to last, consumers enthusiastically supported this new purchasing opportunity and conveniently looked the other way when the labels read Made in China.

In the early stages of this retail shift, discounts were primarily in clothing, but the list of discounted goods soon broadened to include almost everything, and this new way of buying spread into small towns, changing the dynamics of our historic communities forever. By the 80’s and 90’s, historic small town retail districts began to disappear, and many small towns become shadows of their former selves.  The Fast Track lined with big box stores took hold, creating new retail districts serving the locals but leaving many Main Street business owners feeling there was no loyalty left in the community. They closed their doors closed right and left, leaving behind a mood of anger and disenchantment.

There was little the small shop owners could do to match the purchasing power of the Big Boys because they were not in a position to negotiate with their suppliers for the same discounts. Moreover, they were accustomed to being open for business for the normal 9-5 business hours (and most stores were almost always closed on Sundays too) but now had to compete with 24/7.  When the giants moved into town introducing a whole new way of serving (and serving very well) the consumer - the local retailers were caught unprepared.

Now, fast forward to the 21st Century.  Let’s look at how this change has left our small towns.

It might be said that Americans have been bruised beyond spiritual repair, but there could be a silver lining to this chain of economic events.  American entrepreneurs may now see the reality of business and the economy more clearly.  The complacency and smugness typical of so many of the former proprietors might well be replaced by the strong work ethic of our founding fathers like never before. 

It might also be said the assault by retail giants has left our small towns in shambles, but some, to be honest, were beyond repair from neglect anyway.  But for those who still have buildings that are architecturally and infrastructurally intact, this evolution can be a silver lining.  Since the 1960’s, Americans have cast a blind eye to the desecration of architecture, allowing  brick and arched windows to be covered with cheap Plexiglas and aluminum siding, all for the “new and better” 
So what do we REALLY have left – physically?

Where architectural integrity remains, heritage development and job creation have every opportunity to exist.  According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, internatio
nal and domestic tourism spending increased 8.1 percent in 2011, supporting an additional 103,000 jobs for a total of 7.6 million. 

Martha Stewart stated in USA Today, ‘American Made’ salutes innovation “… now there is a real national movement emerging in which the local and the handmade and the artisanal are celebrated and encouraged.’  She goes on to say, ‘I’m encouraged by the fact that 28 million small businesses in the U.S. create nearly two out of every three new jobs, employing some 60 million Americans – or half of the private sector workforce.”

In the aftermath of the giants, small towns and their historic main streets may have a chance to develop tourist shops and attractions to thrive again rather than being merged with other non-tourism businesses. 
The vacancy of our main streets could be the key to accelerated success because full-street blocks can be developed for tourism today without waiting for the long process of relocating non-tourism businesses (cleaners, health clubs, food markets, insurance agents, dentists, liquor stores, etc.) to the side streets and fast tracks.

With this change in our retail industry, we might just have “The Perfect Storm”.

This could be the perfect opportunity for a resurgence in and local jobs.  It could be an opportunity to return to the ‘mom and pop shops’ – the foundations upon which America was created – and developing and preserving the very thing we hold near and dear about our county.

But wait!  Before you sit back and say ‘Ah, yes….this is an interesting approach’…

America:  this is not the time to be complacent again and to fail to protect what could be lost in a heartbeat. 

It requires quick action now before the rest of our historic buildings crumble and history is forgotten. 

It requires action now before the community crumbles from the darker elements of society moving in – and it’s happening every day.

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