Tourism offers city options for growth

Tourism’s benefits, like those of Brookhaven, are something of a secret it seems.

In two recent informal polls of area residents, tourism was one of the lowest vote getters in answer to the question, “What do you see as offering the greatest opportunity for economic growth in our region?”

The first poll was conducted among local business and professional leaders at a Mississippi Economic Council meeting in Brookhaven in January. Six multiple-choice answers were provided to the question, and tourism tied for last place with only 2.33 percent of respondents selecting it as the best opportunity for growth. Meanwhile, the top vote getter was “natural resources – timber, energy, agribusiness,” which received 43 percent of the votes.

The Daily Leader asked the same question in its online poll last week, and once again, tourism tied for last place with 6 percent of the votes. Interestingly, the top vote getter also mirrored the MEC poll, as natural resources – timber, energy, agribusiness led the responses with 31 percent of the votes.

So tourism, it seems is not on area residents’ radar when it comes to building the local economy. Yet, behind the scenes, visitors to our area pump considerable dollars into local businesses and add tax revenue to our city.

Just last week, The Daily Leader reported on one such group of visitors, made up of more than 40 members of the Madison Garden Club. The clubwomen were looking for a nice daytrip, called Kay Burton at the Brookhaven-Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, who worked up an agenda for the visit, and here they were last Wednesday.

The 40-plus women each bought lunch at a local restaurant and made purchases at local retailers. By the time they left, those local businesses could total up their sales for the day with big smiles on their faces.

Was this an isolated example of the effect of tourism on our economy? No, it happens frequently. Burton says she has “quite a few” groups call and ask for a trip agenda. “They ask about the places to eat and the places to shop,” she says. “We just have a pretty incredible package for groups.”

Then there’s also sporting events. Check out local restaurants and convenience stores when there’s a big softball or baseball tournament in town. You’ll see they’re much, much busier than usual. The local hotels also will be full, but if you live here you wouldn’t know that. The local innkeepers will though. In the past three years, we’ve seen two major lodging establishments open in the city – The Inn on Whitworth downtown and the Holiday Inn by the interstate. The businesspersons that put those two hotels in Brookhaven are investing in the future of tourism in this community.

Likewise, the recently formed Baseball Facility Concept Marketing Team, comprised of local citizens and community leaders that have proposed a new youth baseball facility in Lincoln County, also know the economic benefits of bringing people to Brookhaven.

Just one tournament event last summer drew 56 teams, each averaging 12 players. That’s around 600 players alone. Add in two or three coaches per team, plus two or more family members and friends per player, and you have a significant number of visitors in town.

Yet tourism remains “off the radar” when it comes to economic growth, while natural resources remains at the top of people’s minds when they think of building our economy. It seems like the two need to go hand in hand. What better natural resources do we have than our beautiful, tree-lined streets and historic homes, the eclectic architecture of our downtown, our Mississippi School of the Arts, situated on a beautiful campus right in the center of our city?

And adding to the blend is the promise of agri-tourism. The tea farm in progress in the county will also be a unique draw for visitors. Others, like the Ard’s Dairy farm in Ruth, have already jumped onto the agri-tourism bandwagon.

So what’s holding us back? The answer in part is the other part of the “secret.” Brookhaven itself is largely unknown to many outside our city. Burton said the comment she receives from most visitors after they’ve been here is “you’re the best kept secret in Mississippi.”

So how do we share this secret and boost our tourism dollars? The answer is marketing. That requires funding that is not currently in the city, county or chamber budgets. Something that could change that is the 2 percent lodging tax proposed for hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts in the city.

The proposal recently received the approval of the city board of aldermen, the legislature and Gov. Phil Bryant. Now the 2 percent lodging tax proposal must also receive city voters’ approval before it goes into effect.

If voted in, the tax would provide the necessary funds to market and promote local tourism-related activities and events.

And that would help turn the state’s “best kept secret” into a destination city.

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