Strategic plan to improve the county's historically weak tourism industry
April 9, 2008
Will people living in Warren County buy into an ambitious strategic plan to improve the county's historically weak tourism industry? How residents answer that question may be one of the biggest hurdles facing local officials eager to add to the county's tourism economy. Firm backing by residents could be the catalyst that breaks what PLACES director Gary Esolen calls the 'spiral of failure' in the county's tourism industry. Indifference, or, worse, yet, negativity to attempts to expand the tourism industry would keep the county trapped in its current state of stagnation and decline. In the opening report of his three-part study, Esolen identified Warren County as possessing the spirit of a frontier region Ð a region with an economy tightly wrapped around extraction industries and manufacturing in lieu of retail and tourism. 'It's people developed the virtues of hard-working practicality, but had little occasion for entrepreneurial creativity, and almost none for a commercial culture of service,' wrote Esolen in his 'State of the County' report. According to Esolen, the county's isolated location shielded it from sharing the county's assets with people from outside the area, 'and even now much of the community has more nostalgia for its own lost luxuries than eagerness to share them, or practical understanding of how sharing them could prove economically productive.' This unwillingness to share and nostalgia for industries of the past need to be overcome if the county wants to build on its tourism economy. Esolen acknowledged there is a strong concern by residents that tourism not affect the quality of life or create serious changes to the rural and small-city character of the county. 'Such concerns can sometimes lead to a decision not to pursue economic development through tourism at all, but the leadership in Warren County has just as clearly indicated they think building tourism is necessary to prosperity. A lack of other opportunities, and the fact that the state of Pennsylvania is actively promoting tourism along Rt. 6 and in the Pennsylvania Wilds, make that a sound decision. Change is inevitable, and the best way to control the effects of change is to manage it from the start.' Esolen pointed out in his second report, 'Directions for Tourism Development,' that county residents rank tourism as a low priority for economic development. He attributed that low priority to two things: the belief that tourism provides only low-paying menial jobs Ð especially compared to manufacturing Ð and the fear that tourism will lead to 'traffic jams' of visitors and interfer with 'a treasured pace and quality of life.' According to Esolen, the public will need to be educated to demonstrate there are significant opportunities to earn a good income and enjoy a desirable lifestyle working in the tourism industry, and that a well-planned development of the industry can make it compatible with maintaining and even enhancing Warren County's quality of life. Protecting quality of life In his second report, Esolen made it clear that his study and strategic plan to build tourism in Warren County was intended as being 'friendly to the local quality of life.' Esolen recommended Warren County adopt the GeoTourism Charter developed by National Geographic. The GeoTourism Charter would place the county under guidelines to develop tourism that sustains and enhances the geographic character of a place - its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage and the well-being of residents. The charter has been adopted by Honduras, Romania and Norway, and its being used for major projects in Peru and in the Sonoran Desert area of Arizona and Mexico. 'If Warren County adopts that charter and publicizes it, it will be a serious step toward assuring the community that tourism development is intended as friendly to the local quality of life,' wrote Esolen. Higher paying jobs Esolen acknowledged that some jobs created by tourism are low-skilled, low-paying and labor intensive. He believes the way to achieve a better lifestyle by being involved in a tourism economy is through entrepreneurship. 'In urban areas or resort communities where tourism is concentrated, the entrepreneurial spirit not only leads to the creation of many small businesses,' Esolen wrote. 'It also extends to tip jobs such as doormen, waiters and waitresses and even those who park cars and serve as hotel bellmen, who can often make more money than the professional managers up the ladder from them. Although such jobs can be hard work, they are often relatively low-stress jobs, and if they provide sufficient income they can be quite enjoyable.' Esolen suggested Warren County establish an program to educate the community about entrepreneurial opportunities in tourism. He suggested bringing in speakers from other communities which have gone through a transition in tourism development similar to Warren County's situation. Support from the wealthy According to Esolen, it would be understandable if the county's upper class refused to support economic development through tourism. Esolen says that the county's upper class has enjoyed an enviable way of life, enjoying the peace and quiet of a small community on one hand, and the benefits of urban sophistication through traveling when desired. He cited that that upper class has a strong presence in the business and civic communities. 'Few of them are likely to own tourism businesses, though they could if they chose, and they may feel little inclination to share what they love about Warren to visitors,' Esolen wrote. 'Every year, for instance, some of those residents open their fine homes to tours, but the tours are largely local and have never been promoted outside the community.' Esolen stressed the importance of local officials making a strong case for tourism development to the county's 'elite' and enlist their support. 'That may be largely a matter of appealing to their desire to live in a prosperous community, and to support efforts that will lead to the economic betterment of the community,' Esolen wrote. 'But there may also be direct benefits. 'However desirable a way of life may be, change is inevitable. And change has come to Warren with the decline of manufacturing. One example is the magnificent Struthers Library Theatre, which has a long history as a repertory theater and the host of traveling shows of national quality, but can no longer sustain its operations. The wealthiest, most educated and most culturally active citizens of Warren County lose something when such an institution declines, and if tourism can help bring it back into active life, they will benefit.'
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