When people hear the term “economic development,” what often comes to mind is massive projects to entice large-scale business which are so big they change almost instantly the fortunes of a community. In other words, something on the scale of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky in Georgetown.
Prior to Toyota, Georgetown was, for the most part, a rural farming community along I-75 just north of Lexington. But Toyota changed that community greatly, bringing in an influx of both money and people that was previously unimagined.
Likewise, when people think of tourism development, they often think of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, or Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where the economy is totally sustained by tourism and the community’s businesses center on and rely on that industry.
But the reality is that tourism, like economic development, is often not an overnight thing that relies on a single big development or project.
People tend to forget that, for example, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge’s current status is the result of long-term planning and effort that began as the community found ways to capitalize on people visiting the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which was established less than 100 years ago.
Over the decades, individuals and businesses were established as a support to that traffic until, over the years, the national park — for many — became a secondary attractant for the visitors to the region, if they even visit the park at all.
Businesses rose and fell over those decades (anyone remember Magic World?) and it’s just been in recent decades, especially with the help of Dollywood, which was established on the bones of fallen businesses such as Silver Dollar City, that the city’s boom has really been realized.
But, just like Myrtle Beach, those communities established their industries based first on the natural offerings they had.
While all the aforementioned communities — Georgetown, Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge and Myrtle Beach — can provide examples for us as to how to attract visitors and grow our tourism economies here in Eastern Kentucky, they can also serve to provide many cautionary tales.
In Myrtle Beach, crime has accompanied growing crowds over the years. In Georgetown, the community has had to learn to deal with the influx of people, particularly transient workers, who come in to work at Toyota. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have been subject to boom and bust economic factors over recent decades.
Tourism is not a silver bullet which will end all our economic woes, but it can be a big part of our economic recovery. We must, however, keep several things in mind.
First, we cannot lose sight of what our main attractions are — our natural beauty, our people, the relative safety of our communities, the rich and deep wells of arts and culture we often take for granted.
Any growth which threatens these things also threatens a sustainable economic future.
In the nearby Natural Bridge State Park area, the community is at a crossroads — a proposal currently in place would establish a massive resort in the nearly pristine area.
This would provide jobs, of course, but it could also possibly threaten the very things which make Natural Bridge so attractive — its remoteness, the untouched nature, the possibility of still “roughing it.”
The Breaks Interstate Park area can be a jewel for our area, but we must be resistant to any ideas which threaten to encroach upon what’s already there — a glimpse into our region’s biodiversity and unrivaled natural beauty.
We must establish safe and legal areas for people to operate ATVs in our communities, but we must not make our area one big dirt track, lest we lose what makes us unique.
Balance, care and forethought must be paramount in our minds as we move forward. Otherwise, tourism can become a curse, instead of a blessing.