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Gary Esolen's vision for Warren County

April 9, 2008
Gary Esolen has a vision for Warren County for the year 2011. A new hotel, a pedestrian walk along the Allegheny River, a crop of new businesses catering to tourists, two dozen bed and breakfasts, a thriving second home market, an 60 percent increase in campground occupancy in the Allegheny National Forest. He even sees a replica of the St. Louis Arch located outside the Visitors' Center in Starbrick. Whether any of Esolen's vision comes to fruition remains to be seen. Esolen's PLACES was hired by the Warren County Commissioners in early 2006 to conduct a comprehensive study on tourism in Warren County. Esolen finished his study in December 2007. The study's final report was reviewed and approved by Pennsylvania's Department of Community and Economic Development on March 20. The $100,000 study was paid for by a grant from First Industries, a Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development program. PLACES was designated to receive $60,000; Chicago-based firm Economic Research Associates was designated to receive $40,000. Esolen's study is divided into three reports. The first report addresses the 'State of the County' at present and identifies recurring problems that have stood in the way of successful tourism development and promotion. According to the report, the county is in a 'cycle of failure' which 'must be disrupted in order for economic growth through tourism to occur.' The second report establishes productive directions for the county to take to achieve significant economic development through tourism. The third report analyzes how change can be leverage in order to build the county's tourism economy. In the reports, Esolen acknowledged that Warren County has been repeatedly recognized for its tourism potential, largely based on its natural assets - the Allegheny National Forest, the Allegheny River, the Allegheny Reservoir - and its 'stately homes and fine public buildings of downtown Warren.' However, the county's geographic isolation, lack of tourism-friendly business infrastructure, lack of entrepreneurial businesses and a business culture to support them, along with a resistance by residents to share the qualities of the county with visitors, has worked in stymying the development of a strong tourism industry. Under 'State of the County,' Esolen reviewed the various roadblocks standing in the path of developing a tourism-based economy in Warren County. Weak Arrival Experience. According to Esolen, the 'rundown semi-industrial appearance' of the county's towns along Route 6 is incompatible with tourism. He particularly stressed the entrances to the city of Warren. 'The United Refinery is what it is, and it is an important economic asset for the region,' Esolen wrote, 'but no attempt is made to help visitors understand what they are seeing, and many travelers moving westward on Route 6, if they choose to go into Warren at all, might turn at the refinery and pursue a long approach through an industrial section, catching little or no sense of a lovely town, at least until arriving downtown.' Esolen stressed that there is no clear point of entry for visitors approaching Warren from the east. 'None of the entrances are attractively landscaped or well-groomed,' he wrote. He stated that the best entrance to the city is via the Hickory Street Bridge, 'but it lacks beauty or focus at Route 6 and doesn't provide a clear entry experience.' Frontier Spirit. According to Esolen, Warren County has retained a 'frontier spirit' from its early days when its economy was organized around extraction industries such as timber, coal and oil, the railroad and manufacturing. Esolen says that residents 'developed the virtues of hard-working practicality, but had little occasion for entrepreneurial creativity, and almost none for a commercial culture of service.' 'Warren enjoyed the benefits of prosperity, but its relatively isolated location shielded it from much demand to share those benefits with outsiders,' Esolen wrote. 'Even now much of the community has more nostalgia for its own lost luxuries than an eagerness to share them, or practical understanding of how sharing them could prove economically productive.' According to Esolen, several community leaders and representatives of the ANF expressed concern that trying to grow Warren County's tourism industry might conflict with the timber, oil and gas industries. Lacking availability. Esolen contends that the county's four key assets - the Allegheny National Forest, the Allegheny River, the Kinzua Reservoir and the historic buildings and atmosphere of the city of Warren - are at this point in time not significant tourism assets. 'As they now exist they will not support significant development in lodging and services, and they will provide little in the way of business to the ailing small towns of the county, nor to the city of Warren's distressed downtown. The reason is simple: they are not sufficiently available to visitors, as experiences, to support robust tourism growth.' According to Esolen, the ANF chiefly serves a local market, drawing 80 percent of its visitors from the immediate four county area in and around the national forest. Esolen believes the forest draws few tourists from nearby cities such as Pittsburgh and Cleveland. 'The market segments now best served by the ANF are among the least lucrative in tourism, because they are less likely than other travelers to stay in hotels, eat in restaurants or spend money at attractions,' Esolen wrote. He continued with: 'Deep change will be necessary if the Allegheny National Forest is to become a powerful asset to a growing tourism industry in Warren County.' Concerning the Allegheny River, Esolen says it is underdeveloped for tourism, offering canoeing and kayaking as well as fishing, but only to those who are sufficiently familiar with the local area. Esolen pointed out that the Kinzua Reservoir currently lacks amenities for tourists, including almost nothing for driving tourists. As for the city of Warren's historic downtown and surrounding buildings, Esolen wrote it would be 'astonishing if more than a small percentage of travelers to the area ever saw that beauty at all, and for them there is a limited opportunity to experience it.' Esolen cited the city's uninviting entrances for visitors approaching via Rt. 6 and the lack of sufficient restaurants and nightspots as problems that need addressed. Tourism? Who care Esolen cited county residents' ranking tourism development as a low priority as an issue that need to be dealt with. In Warren County's Comprehensive Plan, the public was asked to rank three possible areas of economic development (manufacturing, retail, tourism). Tourism was ranked third. Asked to rank seven possible actions to improve the local economy, they ranked tourism sixth, with only 'our economy is fine now' ranking lower. 'Clearly the people of Warren County are not optimistic that tourism will be a successful strategy to drive economic development,' Esolen wrote. Other subjects touched upon under 'State of the County': (*) Approximately 18 percent of housing in the county are second or seasonal homes, a category which has been growing slightly faster than the overall housing stock. (*) The Horvath Report, contracted to study the feasibility of a hotel/conference center in Warren, did not recommend to proceed with the project under current conditions. Esolen wrote: 'The conference center market at this moment is soft. It is generally recognized that small and large conference centers have both been overbuilt and that demand is not robust. So this project faces a weak leisure market, a weak business market, and a weak conference market. It is doubtful that with any amount of tinkering, it is going to reach the threshold of success.' (*) Impact Warren, except for the potential of a hotel/conference center, have little direct relevance on tourism. (*) The proposed Allegheny Musarium will need to show extraordinary performance to meet its goals. 'However, it would not be wise to permit planning for economic development through tourism in Warren County to depend on the success of the Musarium. (*) A strong feeder market for retail in downtown doesn't exist. Esolen said that there seems to be some hope that by making the downtown more physically attractive, pedestrian-friendly and entertaining, more usage will automatically occur. 'It's not clear, however, where they usage will come from,' Esolen wrote. 'What shopping areas, for example, are people going to now that they will divert business from in order to spend more time in downtown Warren?' Esolen said he believes Warren's Main Street program is under the assumption there is a 'larger tourism market ready and waiting to be captured' if downtown's reputation and marketing strategy changes. Esolen outlined various elements in the county he sees as being compatible with tourism. (*) Festivals, such as the Warren County Fair, Wild WInds, the Corn Festival and Warren's Farmers Market. (*) Farm products, including a growing number of local farms practicing sustainable or organic agriculture. (*) Pride in appearance, including Warren's downtown. (*) Artists and craftsmen. In the study's third report, Esolen outlined 15 initiatives that he believes can be used to leverage an increase in the county's tourism-based economy. Those initiatives include: (*) Creating an ANF Working Task Force, a citizens' organization which will meet regularly with ANF officials. The task force will collect complaints and recommendations from users of the national forest to shape the visitor experience and provide support to goals jointly developed by the task force and ANF. (*) Creating a long-range ANF Policy Task Force. (*) develop wayfinding and interpretive signage to enhance visitors' experience in the count. (*) Map and improve Internet information about the county. (*) Develop a second home market. (*) Create or support 12 events with significant visitor appeal within three years. (*) Develop the waterfront of the Allegheny River and the Conewango Creek. (*) Advance the attractiveness of downtowns via Main Street programs. (*) Create celebratory entrances to each town to set them apart. (*) Develop entrepreneurship over the next three years, including guide services, seasonal and specialized food businesses, transportation offerings, second home support services, specialty retail, educational and special event offerings, etc. (*) Make the county 'a fully connected destination' with casual internet access, cell phone coverage and broadband connectivity for the second home market. (*) Restructure the Warren County Visitors' Center to allow Internet access and a cafe environment for travelers, along with making visitor information and restroom services available 24 hours a day. (*) Increase awareness of the powerful economic impact in tourism growth among the citizens, the businesses and the elected officials in Warren County. (*) Adopt the Geotourism Charter and create sustainable tourism. (*) Join in marketing and programming opportunities with the major attractions to the north in New York. According to Diane Shawley, director of the Warren County Vacation Bureau - the designation lead agency in the grant-funded study - committees will be formed to pursue several of the action items in the near future. 'We will develop committees, we will develop partnerships,' Shawley said. 'We will need four or five dedicated individuals for each committee. Here comes the hard part: (Esolen) doesn't want the same four of five people on each committee. So if we do these, we need 20 to 25 dedicated individuals.'


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