Tuesday, August 23, 2016

What is the secret to a sustainble neighborhood economic development strategy? Start by understanding regional market trends and clusters

This here is a cautionary tale about good intentions gone awry. ("Cuomo's $15 Million High-Tech Film Studio? It's a Flop", NYTimes, 8/22) The story starts innocently enough. The goal was to create jobs in an area with a struggling economy. In this case the State of New York invested $15 million in the creation of a high-tech film studio. The idea was to "build a sustainable film industry in Central New York from the ground up" according to this press release.

But there is a problem. Economic development simply does not work like this.  "If you build it they will come" is largely a myth. Creating jobs, much less building an industry from scratch, is more often than not a fool's errand. A viable economic development approach must therefore be rooted in local opportunities, strengths and market reality. In many cases, it means being on the look out for industry clusters that have already deemed the market suitable. This is about developing a strategy that rests on improving the business environment for an existing industry cluster--a much easier lift than starting from scratch. While the cluster approach is not new (it is embedded within a long history of market-based economic development planning synonymous to many with Prof. Michael Porter) it unfortunately remains mysteriously absent from major public or non-profit led economic development decision-making strategies. And I'm not alone in thinking this. The Brookings Institute recently released a great paper, which I wrote about a few months ago, entitled "Remaking Economic Development" that made the point about clusters precisely, "Economic development should prioritize building strong business ecosystems for core industries, improving the productivity of firms and people, and facilitating trade— the market foundations from which growth, prosperity, and inclusion emerge."

So why all this discussion about regional economic trends and clusters? Aren't we talking about neighborhoods? Well, without the region there is no neighborhood economy. So when it comes to developing a viable neighborhood economic development strategy we need to next these efforts within a larger regional market. This means identifying industries that are already making a go of the opportunities and competitive advantages of an area, from a skilled labor force to critical infrastructure to the presence of complimentary firms. These are all the factors that enable a business to generate profit. Consider the unique local factors that led Hershey to build his factory in Pennsylvania--proximity to lots and lots of cows who produce milk, the main commodity in milk chocolate. Or why Detroit's auto industry has stuck it out in Detroit--there exist a cluster of suppliers, manufacturers, distributions, researchers, etc. that are quite difficult to move and replicate elsewhere. Putting these clusters on a more aggressive growth trajectory, whereby they are able to lower costs, grow profits, hire more people and fill more vacant real estate space is the opportunity that we have in our urban neighborhoods.

A study commissioned by Indianapolis LISC
offers insight into how a local
non-profit can tap regional economic trends to
build a real estate investment and job
growth strategy in low-income urban neighborhoods. 
The Indianapolis chapter of the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) is helping lead an effort of this kind by commissioning an report that served as a guide for industrial investment strategies in urban places. The findings? Three clusters showed "particular promise and a competitive edge for Indianapolis...Food Manufacturing and Distribution, Business to Business (B2B) and Technology." The recommendations offer the beginning of a road map for how LISC, one of the nation's largest CDFI's, can help grow industry clusters through targeted, place-based real investments. Some notable recommendations include supporting feasibility analysis for industrial buildings and developing accessible expertise around site selection, industrial building re-use and conversion.

Another approach is helping to absorb build out costs for the kinds of capital investments necessary for the Food Manufacturing Cluster. Ensuring space can accomodate enhanced refrigeration and electrical loads, or can support high-quality processing and distribution all while maintaining high health and safety standards requires a site by site analysis to determine feasibility and any gap financing needed to make a project viable.

The solutions aren't always easy - in some cases they involve developing regional working groups that will open lines of communication between the public and private sectors to guide and inform investment and policy initiatives over time. As it turns out, engaging a broad spectrum of private sector partners and ground-truthing potential public investments might have made a difference between a great New York Times piece and an embarrassing one.


This is the final in a three-part series exploring ways communities are playing a greater role in planning and developing their tourism industries. Guest blogger Joe Bly is a former documentary producer and writer, going beyond film and television to tell stories of social and urban progress.

Platforms like Airbnb that facilitate short term rental (STR) can make any property owner a proprietor in their local tourism industry.  City governments across the country are responding largely with regulations and restrictions on private, short term rentals. 

Is there a municipality doing the opposite – embracing, supporting, or even helping coordinate short term rental as part of economic and tourism development or community tourism planning?

I know a couple that lives in Cambridge, MA, just across the river from Boston.  But they are not there right now.  They are driving in a minivan with their four, yes four, children under the age of ten, and they’ve been travelling all summer.  They can take the time because they are both public school teachers, off for the summer.  But they can’t go home – they rented it out by days and weeks for the entire summer on Airbnb.

Each year they pack away their household to move out and convert their home into a rental.  Their freewheeling, vagabond season is half vacation, half job.  The longer they can stay out of their home, the more money they can salt away in savings.  It’s not about a greater vision of building community-based lodging capacity in Cambridge, nor upending chain hotels; just the gumption of one family to pay for their four, yes four, children to go to college.

The vast majority of hosts on Airbnb, VRBO, or any of the sites that facilitate short-term rental are doing so as individuals, trying to turn extra rooming space into income.  This is why there has been such a groundswell, seen all over the world – 640,000 Airbnb hosts in 57,000 cities - precisely because its driven by individual entrepreneurism. 

But there are collateral benefits of STR, beyond the individual host.  Airbnb has recently been making great strides in public relations to research and publish figures articulating in several ways the local economic benefit that Airbnb facilitates.  Their findings claim that Airbnb generates hundreds of millions of dollars in rental and tourism spending in major cities, Airbnb guests stay longer on average than hotel guests, and therefore end up spending more money locally.  Additionally, and most interestingly, Airbnb brings guests and spending to neighborhoods off the beaten path that normally don’t benefit from tourism.

That sounds great!  Town planners everywhere must be leaping to figure out how to support this boon.  Cambridge Office of Tourism must be trying to figure out how to coordinate with my friends?  Well, much more independent research will be needed to verify the accuracy of Airbnb’s calculations, as well as to understand the impact on the entire lodging and tourism sector.  And it gets more complicated from there – certain Airbnb activity bumps up against existing commercial regulation and town codes.

So the STR PR effort has gone into industry wide advocacy.  In 2013, Airbnb, HomeAway, and TripAdvisor together set up and funded their own advocacy group, The Short Term Rental Advocacy Center.  Their mission seems to be to promote favorable research and publicity like above, and also to stay abreast of the avalanche of state laws and municipal codes that are being altered every day as each town and jurisdiction reacts to the surge in short term rental trends.

The Short Term Rental Advocacy Center Website

The STRAC website and any stroll through the public minutes of town planning meetings reveals that most locales are scrambling to beef up regulations and restrictions to private and short term rental in an attempt to stave off the most rampant abuses of unregulated commerce and the worst side effects of pocking neighborhoods with crash-pads and party houses.  Therefore, STRAC will also trumpet legislative victories, and examples of city and court decisions that protect owners’ rights.  I asked STRAC is they knew of any towns that were somehow incorporating Airbnb activity into their economic development strategies.  A spokesperson, pointed me to Galveston, TX one of their favorite STR-friendly cities.  Why?  The official tourism website lets you search vacation rentals and one of the only city regulations is that hosts must provide a card to guests about noise ordinances.

Hands off, yes, but more laissez faire than coordinated.

There is another model, the closest thing I could find to local government facilitating Airbnb activity and doing so in a way that can direct some of the benefit towards shared community resources. 

Ithaca, NY

In June of this year, Tompkins County, home to the town of Ithaca and Cornell University, became the first in the state to strike a very interesting arrangement with Airbnb – the collection and payment of the local room tax.  Tompkins county has for many years required the estimated 170 Airbnb hosts to pay a 3% occupancy tax on the rental fee, the same as hotels and bed and breakfasts.  However, this created a huge compliance headache.  Individuals, far more often than businesses, were not aware of the requirements or how to charge the fee, and even less equipped to calculate their personal tax implications and how much they owed the county.  Then it fell on the county government to try to collect owed taxes from residents.  In the new deal, Airbnb will automatically add the tax to any rental in Tompkins County, and will be responsible for remitting it directly to the County. 
‎Tompkins County Planning Department, Tourism Program Director Tom Knight, emphasizes that the agreement was in essence about solving a compliance issue in a way that now guarantees 100% payment.  A 2014 report estimated that Airbnb rentals in the county that year amounted to perhaps 1 million dollars in revenue –possibly representing approximately $30,000 in room tax.  A majority of the total occupancy taxes will continue to be put towards promoting tourism to the region and investing in tourism infrastructure.  Knipe is careful to point out that the program is new and will need to be studied to assess if more coordination with Airbnb or its hosts will become part of the long range strategic plan. http://www.ithaca.com/news/county-get-airbnb-to-pay-percent-room-tax/article_15ebf396-38a4-11e6-afea-63e5811cd9d7.html

Downtown Ithaca

Related Tompkins County tourism statistics:
-          Over 900,000 visitors annually, one of the highest in upstate New York
-          Over $2 million per year collected in occupancy taxes and invested in tourism
-          Estimated 10,000 annual room nights through Airbnb
-          Airbnb room tax represents roughly 1 – 1.5% to that budget
-          More cities upstate are looking into similar arrangements

Are Tompkins County’s 10,000 Airbnb room nights actually adding net tourists, or siphoning 10,000 nights from the local hotels and BnBs?  That’s the subject of another blog.  What’s interesting to this series’ theme of community tourism planning is the role that Airbnb and similar platforms could play. 

Already there is the power to bring more residents into participatory roles in their tourism industry.  They become more involved.  And they are easily connected.  We describe the peer-to-peer structures in terms like “members” and “communities”.  Particularly for locales with little lodging industry, Airbnb could be an essential part of tapping existing lodging capacity that is closer to the community and can be utilized quickly and with little investment. With input from the community, city codes supportive of STR could be updated.

Tourist attractions and events could coordinate with Airbnb hosts – for example, if there were an upcoming festival, promotion efforts could be shared with Airbnb hosts, so that they are abreast of every opportunity and can adapt their own marketing.

Airbnb guests as a community could coordinate with the business community so that information on local restaurants, retail, and attractions could be provided to Airbnb guests the way that is standard at hotels and motels.

Airbnb can cooperate in a tax programs similar to that in Tompkins County
The Tompkins County model serves as a starting point for town and tourism planners, especially cities of lesser means, to regulate yes, but also coordinate with and harness that energy and revenue in ways that involve more of the community in the planning, and create more shared benefit.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The fallacies of retail market analysis and why looking at the numbers alone is a recipe for failure

Here is something to chew on. One of the biggest factors in the success of your downtown or commercial district has nothing to do with local purchasing power. As any broker or retailer can tell you, retail success is based on a variety of conditions and as a firm we have always taken a comprehensive approach to understanding retail environments, one that extends far beyond leakage calculations. As urban planners, we are also quite cognizant of the impact of the physical environment and its role on successful retail. Whenever I train downtown practitioners, I tell them to think about their job this way - "your job is to create the conditions to ensure businesses succeed, to 'set the stage' for a retailer. If you can do that well you have done a good portion of what you were hired to do."

So while understanding market demand is a critical and often a first step in determining opportunities for downtown retail, we have always posited that retail market analysis requires an analysis of much more than market demand. Our approach, developed over nearly twenty years of field work, looks at four key areas - the physical environment, the business environment, the market demand generated by residents, employees and visitors, and the adminstriative capacity to improve and manage the district over time. In fact, these four elements are part of a tool we developed for the City of New York and funded by the Local Initaitive Support Corporation called the Commercial District Neighborhood Assessment tool (CDNA). I like to call it "Commercial DNA". The goal of the assessment is to understand the fundamental and dinstincive qualities and characteristicts that make a commercial district unique - much like our DNA is what makes each of us unique. This kind of asset-based retail analysis is by nature much more comprehensive, and allows us to develop a clearly defined set of improvements, interventions and activities that will build off of local assets and ensure more viable and sustainable retail environments.  

This post focuses on one specific element of the Commercial DNA assessment, that of the physical environment and in particular issues of access, convenience and visibility. The failure of a retail environment to ensure these fundamental conditions are met can ultimately undermine retail performance in subtle but destructive ways. Below I’ve outlined a few issues that we see come up quite frequently when looking at traditional downtown environments. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start for those looking to diagnose “access” challenges. 

Two Starbuck exist comfortably across the street from one a
nother along Mission Street in San Francisco.
For many goods and services, customers are driven by convenience and ease. The minute you ask a potential customer to wait at a light and make a left hand turn across a few lanes of traffic, you have decreased the likelihood that they will do it, and therefore decreased sales volume for a business. The same holds true the minute you ask a shopper to cross a busy street to grab a cup of coffee on the way to work. This is precisely why there are two Starbucks across the street from one another on Market Street in San Francisco, for instance. And it is also why Dunkin Donuts’ site selection criteria includes being on the “in bound” side of the street, or take-out food businesses want to be on the "out bound" side of the street to grab customers on their way home from work. In both cases, the idea is to faciliate an easy purchase in every way possible. Basically, it is a basic human reflex to find the shortest distance between two points, and downtown retailers need to find ways to make sure customers can easily walk in the front door with the least hassle possible. This is one reason why we perform a block-by-block analysis in our work, because each block and each corner holds unique challenges and possibilities for retailers that often must be addressed.

Stores, particularly mom and pop stores that do not advertise like national chains, need visibility from every angle to compete.
Years ago I met the owner of this ice cream store in
Downtown Bethesda, MD, (then Gifford's)
who told me that this vertical ice cream cone made a huge
 difference in sales when he put it in. Clearly Haagen Daz agrees. 
When a quick glance by a passing pedestrian or motorist is your only form of advertising, you better work hard to make sure you are catching the customer's eye. 
If buildings are blocking visibility or if signage is non-existent or only facing one way, the lower visibility will affect sales volume. This matters even more for convenience shopping when there are no anchors. For many businesses, and especially mom-and-pops, the lost of even a single every matters. This is why 150 feet can matter to a retailer deciding between a corner location (called an “end cap”) with high visibility from all angles and a mid-block location. 

Retailers will also wait for the right site, even if it means foregoing a market entirely. A few years ago we talked to CVS about a location one block from a subway stop in a market with high demand and limited drugstores offerings. The response was “come back to us if you can get us that corner location. There is no way I can go to our real estate committee with anything less than what we consider a 100% corner”.

That brusk response is not uncommon, but some of the challenges of a site 1/2 a block off a 100% corner can be offset by signage. Our work a few years ago in Mount Washington, Pittsburgh, PA bore this out. After blade signs were introduced down a sleepy street, pedestrian counts increased by 30%, businesses reported increased sales volume, one jewelery store owner was able to keep his store open a few extra days a week and vacancies declined.

Enough parking, but not visible or comfortable to use
The walkways in Shadyside, PA to rear parking lots are well
lit and attractive. Source: Google Streetview

In many downtowns, the problem isn’t a lack of parking, but rather a lack of visible parking directly in front of the stores that shoppers want to patronize. Of course many will argue that people don't park in front of the store they want to visit when going to a mall, so why should downtown be different? In theory, that is true, but the problem is that struggling downtowns do not function like the malls (yet). They often have successful retailers and restaurants interspered among vacancies or less attractive offerings. The take away here is not to solve for the problem by putting lots of parking in front of a given store, but rather increase density of offerings so that shoppers can in fact patronize multiple stores at once, rather than a single destination. 

South Orange, NJ has nicely landscaped
walkways to rear parking lots. 
Another issue with parking is the perceived inconvenience of parking in a lot that is a block or two from a shopper’s ultimate destination. To make matters worse, sometimes the public realm between the lot and the retail area is so poorly tended that a block long walk can feel a lot longer. For example, in areas where heat is an issue, the lack of shade trees can make a short walk oppressive. Other issues include lighting, or giving shoppers something interesting to look at while they walk. Without these improvements, walking can be uncomfortable and unappealing. Some communities have addressed these connectivity challenges fairly well – South Orange in New Jersey and Shady Hill in Pittsburgh come to mind. Both have invested in well tended landscaping and pavings along these mid-block alleys that make the experience of walking to/from the parking lot more pleasant.

Inadequate Street Crossings
Even minor barriers affect shopping behavior. Asking shoppers to walk to the end of the street before crossing results in a loss of shoppers and sales volume. We worked in one community in New Jersey where the lack of a mid-block crossing was resulting in significant detrimental affects for all businesses. Whereas the district could have felt cohesive, offering 60k + sf of total offerings and drawing from a larger trade area, retailers and property owners made it more difficult for shoppers to patronize both sides of the street. In fact, you were prohibited from parking in one lot and patronizing businesses on the other side of the street. Instead, you were expected to get back in your car and park in the lot across the street if you wanted to patronize a business within 50 ft of your already parked car. Once a drive is in the car, they are likely going elsewhere. This only means lost business for all businesses.

As I said, this is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it gives you insight into the variety of issues that we consider, beyond discretionary spending power, that make a difference between a successful downtown retail environment and one that is struggling.

Please check out our website (larisaortizassociates.com) for more information on how we can help your community. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Retail Site Selection 101: What Can We Learn From the Closure of Walmart Express Stores?

This month's Planning Magazine reports on an issue that affects many of the commercial corridors we often work with: business closures. The article "Big Box Bust?" covers the closing of Walmart Express stores, a new retail concept that sought to provide customers of less dense communities a streamlined version of its full-size stores.While Walmart Supercenter stores average 180,000 square feet, the Express stores were between 12,000 to 15,000 square feet (about the size of an average Walgreens store) and focused on a few grocery items and other key essentials.

As the article noted, the closing of Walmart Express stores affect more rural geographies and areas with limited access to groceries and other daily essentials. The closures of all Express stores (and not of the Supercenter stores) means that this was not an issue exclusive to a particular community but it was a problem with the larger strategy and criteria of how Walmart initially chose its Express sites.

When working on retail attraction projects we often we see communities trying to make their corridors attractive to retail businesses without understanding retailers' rationale and decision making process.While every retailer follows its own site selection process, several factors are universal and key to business success. On the following paragraphs we go over some of the basics of retail site selection, discuss some overall lessons learned from the closing of Express stores and briefly consider  the role planners can play in retail attraction and site selection.

Site Selection Basics

Trade area: retailers must understand where most customers will come from and how far they will be willing to travel to a particular store. The trade area determines the boundaries in which to collect demographics, a key and vital information to understand the market demand and the viability of a location.  It also helps retailers plan regionally and avoid placing too many stores together and “cannibalizing” each other.

Demographics: retailers must know who the customers are, what they buy and how much they typically spend. Armed with this data, retailers can set criteria to evaluate distinct sites and geographies.

Physical attributes: when examining sites within a trade area, retailers will not only check the location of competitors but also the presence of other businesses that share similar customer-base and can complement (and attract) customers to its front doors (also referred to as co-tenancy).

As important are the sites’ visibility and accessibility. Retailers want their stores to be seen and to be easily accessible by their customers, whether they are coming by car, bike, foot or public transit.

Cost per square foot: A site’s visibility, access and co-tenancy all influence cost per square foot and ultimately the store’s bottom line. As discount retailers generally run on tight operating margins, any increase in a location’s leasing costs (with all other factors remaining equal) could make a store economically unviable.

In the case of Walmart’s Express stores, the site selection strategy may have played a key role to the concept’s demise. The majority of Express stores were located within 10 miles of a Supercenter, which Walmart believed would complement customers’ trips to these Supercenters. Additionally, as the Planning magazine points out, stores were serving relatively isolated, thinly populated trade areas where household incomes were well below the national average. In its analysis, the consulting firm CDS Community Development Strategies found that more than 80% of closed Express stores needed a trade area of 100 square miles or more to reach 5,000 households (equivalent to 5,000 households within a 5.7 mile radius). In comparison, convenience retailers such as Dollar Tree requires a population of 20,000 within 5 miles and 7 Eleven requires 5,000 within 1 mile.

Thus, with thinly populated trade areas, thin operating margins and entrenched competitors, Walmart Express stores experiment didn’t last.

Planners Contribution
Planners and other community leaders can play a significant role in the site selection process. They can help retailers by providing and interpreting data about local traffic patterns and future development plans that might affect market demand as well as by providing valuable information of community preferences and lifestyle.

Planners can also provide significant contribution to communities willing to attract retailers. Knowing how a community fits into retail trade areas and what sites might be most attractive to retailers can help local communities not only by allowing them to target appropriate retailers, but also to optimize their time and resources in pursuing the right ones.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Round Up: Urban Taxidermy, Tightening the Rust Belt, Tips for a Successful Art Tour, The Elements of Placemaking

Jargon Watch: "Urban Taxidermy"

As cities struggle to maintain character of neighborhoods and commercial districts, they are conflicted between two options, the preservation of old buildings versus allowing development to proceed. By preserving a district you also preserve a "walkable, vibrant streetscape where people want to be." Enter Urban Taxidermy.

Robert Allsopp defines urban taxidermy as "the art of preserving, stuffing and mounting buildings for lifelike effect to simulate an intrinsic social, cultural or commercial vitality."

Before urban taxidermy.
After urban taxidermy.

Do Parts of the Rust Belt ‘Need to Die Off’?

Experts suggest that struggling Rust Belt cities must look to the future of their cities by slimming down strategically through "smart decline."  Smart decline refers to "the ways in which cities can plan around population loss and find ways to manage it (and maybe grow again one day)." Some strategies include moving lowest density occupants to compact neighborhoods, building greenbelts instead of maintaining untraveled streets, encouraging urban farming or letting the barren areas revert to nature.

Helping the Public Enjoy Art

A multi-tiered approach to getting people out for an art tour in downtown Des Moines, Iowa offers some ideas on how to attract visitors to your district for one-off events and beyond.

Public Space at the Crossroads of Everything

The "place" in Placemaking is the combination of many more elements than you might've previously even considered. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Emerging Ideas in Community Tourism Planning - Part 2

This is the second in a three-part series exploring ways communities are playing a greater role in planning and developing their tourism industries. Guest blogger Joe Bly is a former documentary producer and writer, going beyond film and television to tell stories of social and urban progress.

Before the drama of the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro can begin on August 5th, and the Paralympics in September, another drama has to conclude:  preparing the city to host one of the biggest and highest profile events on the planet.  Of course, when selected in 2009, Rio was already a premier tourist destination, with tourism revenue representing 67% of the city’s GDP.  It hosted about 1 and a half million foreign tourists that year, a third of those for a single event, Carnival. 

But since then, Brazil has spent almost $12 billion upgrading nearly every level of infrastructure required to host the games.  That’s not just for specialized sports facilities and team dormitories.  The city has struggled to completely revamp its train and subway systems, water and waste management systems, and amid controversy, relocate entire residential neighborhoods.  This to host what is essentially a single, unique visitor attraction.  And every effort is stalked by questions of what is the ultimate benefit, and for whom. 

Here is where we can draw parallels and lessons for any location scaling up tourism capacity.  Even at the other end of the spectrum, a locale with little or no tourism infrastructure or resources, the issues of effective capacity building and community benefit remain the same.  So what does launching a tourism industry from scratch look like?

Community-Based Tourism

Community-based tourism (CBT) is a model in which often remote communities host visitors in the homes of residents and provide access to their unique attraction and cultural events.  The most familiar form is ecotourism.  2800 miles northwest of Rio, the Manaus region of the Amazon is home to numerous community-based ecotourism projects.  There is little tourism infrastructure deep in the jungle, but trekkers can homestay with local families, hire guides and riverboat excursions and buy local foods and handicrafts.  The cultural access is as unique an offering as the setting.  Most programs are planned and administered entirely by local residents with training and guidance provided by the government or NGOs.  The emphasis is on creating direct and sustainable economic benefit for local residents and enhancing their autonomy, while requiring little capital.  This approach to tourism is found in nearly every developing country in the world.
Yet CBT in this form is virtually nonexistent in the United States.  Could this approach be adapted to locales here that wish to develop a tourism industry where none existed before.  I found one rare example in a very small community that shares a communally held resource as exceptional as any Olympics – a cultural heritage of quilting. 

Tourist economy built by hand – Gee’s Bend, Alabama

In the heart of Alabama, there is a bow in the Alabama River wrapping around the area of Gee’s Bend so as to almost make it an island, nearly inaccessible, but for one road and a ferry.  It is a very rural home to about 200 mostly African American residents.  What puts it on the map is a long history of exquisite quilts made by generations of Gee’s Benders.  These quilts have hung in museums and art galleries, and have sold for as much as $20,000.  But Gee’s Bend had almost no ability to accommodate visitors interested in quilting and local heritage; there was little coordinated marketplace where quilts could be found, no eateries or overnight lodging, and no related cultural or historical programming.  Development grants from the Ford Foundation and tremendous assistance from groups like Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprises for Families (SURREF), and Auburn University, have allowed Gee’s Bend to decide collectively how to develop a community based tourism industry, physically and in expertise.

The Gee's Bend Quilt Mural Trail 

The highlights:

The Gee’s Bend town of Boykin already had a quilting collective established during the Civil Rights movement that met and worked in a community building.  This collective and building has been developed into the hub of quilt visiting, serving as a shop, museum, information center, and classroom.

An organized quilting trail and maps now help guide visitors through the area. Quilters offer overnight stays in their own homes. Staffing is local.  Marketing, sales, tours, visitor services, retail are all staffed by trained local residents.

The Gee’s Bend area now has a cafĂ©, renovated guest houses, a calendar of events, and is promoted regionally and statewide.  Through community-based planning and implementation, residents are able to capture more of the economic benefits, while preserving and promoting a unique heritage.  The takeaways could apply to any locale in the US starting from scratch, and maybe even Rio.  CBT emphasizes collective decisions about how a community exploits its communal resources, and as in Gee’s Bend, every development has to maximize benefit.  More than just raise tourism revenue, any effort or investment has to cultivate ability and entrepreneurship within the community, adding mutually supportive, interlocking pieces of capacity.  I can think of no better metaphor than a quilt.

The Gee's Bend Quilting Collective in Boykin, AL

It has never been easier for a community, lacking any accommodations, to market themselves and host visitors from anywhere within their own homes – now that Airbnb and short term rentals are almost instantly ubiquitous.  Yet we do not yet see widespread community-based tourism facilitated by Airbnb.  What’s missing - the coordination.  My next post asks ‘Is any locality or community coordinating short term rental as a tourism development strategy?’

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Emerging Ideas in Community Tourism Planning

This is the first in a three-part series exploring ways communities are playing a greater role in planning and developing their tourism industries. Guest blogger Joe Bly is a former documentary producer and writer, going beyond film and television to tell stories of social and urban progress.
Community Tourism Planning in Hood River, Oregon, has benefited downtown through increased economic activity
As we are arriving at a tourism or vacation travel destination, what often goes by in a blur, at first, is the community that surrounds it.  Other times, unique neighborhoods themselves are the destination, and we’re alert to every nuance.
In either case, we eventually leave with lasting impressions, whether we realize it or not, that are rooted in the relationship between the attraction and the supporting community.  Did we feel welcomed as visitors?  Were the residents and the area benefitting broadly from tourism, or was all the business captured by a single attraction?  Did we feel exploited by a “tourist trap”, or did we go unnoticed, our getaway about being able to pretend for a little while that we lived there ourselves?  How do we feel about tourists in our own town?
Increasingly, attention is being paid to the relationship between the community and its tourism industry.  Community Tourism Planning is a planning approach that recognizes the contributions of the host community:

  • Local residents are the owners, operators, and workers of the tourism base.
  • Communities are the source of the culture or character that attracts visitors, the “flavor”.
  • More than ever, residents are literally the hosts, using Airbnb or other means of private short term rental to physically host visitors in their own homes.

Therefore, Community Tourism Planning, or Community Tourism Development, encourages greater input and determination from a community in the strategic planning of local and regional tourism, in order to:
  • Ensure that tourism plans are aligned with overall community values and goals. 
  • Create a collaborative partnership between residents, businesses, resources, and planning authorities.
  • Work with communities to balance the positive and negative effects of tourism
  • Ensure that the whole community is the ultimate beneficiary of sustainable tourism activity.

Municipal governments, visitors bureaus, and tourism development groups find that communities involved in planning remain active participants and are also supportive of initiatives, regulations, or changes to policy needed to pursue the collective mission.  As tourism becomes more diverse in its offerings, spread out geographically, and democratized by attractions and visitors interacting on social media, community tourism planning will be a way for planning authorities to continue to provide leadership and coordinate their goals.
The University of Minnesota Extension has created a community tourism development project that publishes resource material articulating guidance particularly well.
In many ways, the process is similar to other kinds of cultural or business development assessment and planning.  The quality of community engagement is the key factor to success.

Inventory – The Community Identifies its Tourism Assets

Hood River Fruit Loop Map
The Hood River Valley of Oregon has long been a center of apple, pear, and cherry farming.  It is also situated in the scenic Columbia River Gorge.  When the area’s agribusiness base began to fade in the 1990s, communities focused on what they felt were their two most valuable assets:  local food products and scenic environs.  From this inventory, Hood River County growers associations and state development grants created a wildly successful agritourism zone known as The Fruit Loop.  The Fruit Loop is now a 35 mile road route guiding visitors to farms, farm stands, and wineries of the Columbia River Gorge.  The Hood River Chamber of Commerce Visitor Council publishes maps and coordinates a calendar of events to bring tourists to harvest and blossom festivals year-round.  In 2014, approximately 125,000 visitors spent almost $88 million dollars in this rural county.  The Fruit Loop has become a model for inclusive and sustainable food tourism because its development is anchored in what the community believes it does best (http://hoodriverfruitloop.com/)
Mt. View's Fruit Stand, open each harvest season from July through November, is the not-so-hidden treasure of the Hood River County Fruit Loop 

Participants - Harness Community Initiative and Identity

Washington D.C.’s Neighborhood Heritage Trails are official walking tours of the District’s historic neighborhoods, illuminated with historical markers, signs, photographs, and audio tour guides.  Cultural Tourism DC is the nonprofit group that coordinates the funding and technical assistance to implement the tour routes – but the historic themes, research, and planning are articulated and conducted by the neighborhoods themselves.  Prospective communities submit proposals for routes and points of interest.  If selected by Cultural Tourism DC’s committee, they receive funding to organize and conduct their own historical research and receive guidance in assessing and developing the neighborhood’s capacity to support a permanent tour offering (transportation, available public restrooms, businesses on the route are informed and can answer questions).  Enticing visitors to explore, eat, and shop “beyond the monuments”, the tours become economic boons to neighborhoods further away from D.C.’s most iconic landmarks.  But the benefits also go beyond financial.  Supporting communities in their own heritage tourism development stimulates a conversation, taps the knowledge and memory of life-long residents, and fosters a sense of neighborhood identity.  The program now boasts 17 distinct heritage trails on historic themes from art history to civil rights (http://www.culturaltourismdc.org/portal/neighborhood-heritage-trails).

Knowledge partner case studies of developing neighborhood cultural tourism include:
Future posts in this series will take a closer look at issues related to community tourism planning. 
Community Based Tourism:  CBT is a tourism development model that relies entirely on the host residents and resources where little or no tourism infrastructure or authority exists.  At the moment, this kind of thinking is applied to very poor or isolated communities possessing a unique attraction, like a village in Tanzania that hosts wildlife tours.  Couldn’t these same principles be applied to any locale here in the U.S. with a natural or cultural attraction, but few resources to develop them?
Airbnb as economic development plan:  Platforms that facilitate short term rental make any property owner a participant in their local tourism industry.  Municipal governments across the country are responding largely with regulations and restrictions on private short term rentals.  Is there a municipality doing the opposite – embracing, supporting, or even helping coordinate short term rental as part of economic and tourism development?
These and other stories from where the rubber meets the road, or the comfortable street shoe meets the walking tour. 
joe bly