I very much appreciated Trenda’s editorial last week. As one of the locals who was hosting the tour, I can clearly remember the sinking feeling I got when the bus driver pulled OFF the road rather than just to the side of the pavement. The tourism counselors (those wonderful souls who staff the Interstate rest area visitor centers throughout the summer) were good sports about the delay.
I really wanted to be at the Comprehensive Plan listening sessions, but I was in Kearney along with the rest of the staff of the North Platte/Lincoln County Convention and Visitors Bureau (NP/LCCVB) staff at the national Watchable Wildlife conference (www.watchablewildlife.org). While I learned a lot about how nature and wildlife tourism can impact a community, what struck me most is that whenever any of the attendees learned I was from Sutherland, they immediately commented about what an amazing birdwatching area the Sutherland Reservoir is. These were people from all across the country, officials with state and national fish and game agencies and others interested in nature tourism, and they were all jealous that I lived so close to such an area.
Sutherland is so blessed to have this recreation area just a few short miles out of town, not only because we all get to have fun on the lake, but also because it can serve as an attraction to bring outside dollars into our community. It is a phenomenal facility, with beautiful campgrounds at the Inlet and Sutherland beach, the Oregon Trail Golf Course, great fishing and hunting opportunities, and as I mentioned before, an exceptional reputation as a birdwatching location. And you can add to that the Flatrock Riders OHV track (www.NOHVA.com) nearby.
Each year the NP/LCCVB represents the area at the Denver Boat, Sport and Travel Show in March. I can speak from personal experience that visitors from Denver would consider a trip to the area to spend time at the Reservoir, and might even extend their stay when they find out about the great fishing at the Interstate lakes in the area. These visitors would need to buy groceries, refreshments, bait, fuel, lodging or camping, and may possibly drop some money at the Golf Course too. We already have all of the great facilities, all we need to do is to get the word out.
The NP/LCCVB has a promotional grant program which could fund the creation and distribution of a brochure or rack card, and we would certainly be happy to take it to the shows that we attend to promote the Sutherland area. All we need is a local group to spearhead the project and complete and present the grant applications.
Shall we talk trains now? The Sutherland Railroad Park is uniquely positioned to become a Mecca for train spotters. For an idea about what might be possible, check out the Folkston Funnel in Folkston, GA (www.folkston.com/trains/trains.htm). This small town boasts 40-60 trains a day going through on CSX lines. In 2001, they built a viewing platform based on a Lionel Trains model railroad depot. Now several thousand visitors each year stop to watch trains from the platform. With the Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center and Rail Fest in North Platte as well as the new emphasis on the “Rail Town USA” identity, Sutherland should capitalize on what we have – a beautiful park located right on the tracks.
A small way to start would be to make a little modification on the pedestrian overpass. By simply cutting a few camera-lens size openings in the chain link fence on the overpass, it could become a wonderful place for train spotters to get unique photographs. Of course, once it was made photographer friendly, rail fans would have to be made aware that Sutherland welcomed them with this convenience. From there, developing some type of viewing platform in the park might be a possibility.
In another nod to our transportation heritage, Highway 30, the Lincoln Highway Scenic and Historic Byway that runs right through Sutherland will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2013. The national Lincoln Highway conference will be held in Kearney, and plans are already being made for antique car caravans to start at both coasts to converge on Kearney for the celebration. Sutherland is unique among the small towns, at least those on the highway in Nebraska that I’ve been through. We have three, admittedly in need of restoration, historic service stations dating from the 1930’s or thereabouts, when the highway was realigned on the current alignment.
While there might not be much reuse potential in the three stations, there could certainly be some curb appeal gained from their restoration. If fans of the Lincoln Highway stop for a photo op at the stations, it’s just possible they might also stop for refreshments or to fill up their fuel tanks. There are definitely possibilities there. The Lincoln Highway Byway through Nebraska can be found on the Internet at www.lincolnhighwaynebraskabyway.com. The Association is open for membership, and definitely needs more representation from main street businesses that can benefit from tourist dollars and can also do the most to enhance a visitors experience along the byway.
I haven’t even begun to touch on the other tourist potential in the area. Have you heard of geocaching? A quick search of geocaching.com found 100 caches associated with the 69165 zip code. These high-tech treasure hunters will make it a point to stop during their travels to find caches and many schedule dedicated vacations just to geocache. What about our agri-tourism? Mark and I have the opportunity to open our home to many travelers, most of whom have never been through Nebraska before, or if they have, have never been out of the I-80 corridor. We always take a short jaunt with them up into the Sandhills. Never have we had anyone who wasn’t awed by the area. One comment we have gotten more than once is “It’s good to know that places like this still exist.” Not only would we be helping the local economy and probably some individual operators if tourist activities associated with the Sandhills were developed, we would be doing our part in helping our fellow citizens find a place of peace and tranquility.
At the Upper Midwest Convention and Visitors Bureau conference in September, the CVB staff learned about Agri Culinary Tourism – a group tour comes to the area and tours some of the agricultural operations, then a chef prepares a meal with local foods, paired with local wines. This would be a great program to develop in our area. A full motorcoach overnighting in a community will drop between $5,000 and $8,000 on lodging, shopping, food and fuel. We definitely need to find more reasons for bus tours to visit our area.
Sports Tourism was another educational track that we attended at UMCVB. The North Platte/Lincoln County Convention and Visitors Bureau is now working with the Nebraska Sports Council to develop a local sports commission/council to help all of the organizers of local sports activities and tournaments to attract more participants to the area. With all of the wonderful facilities in the rural communities surrounding North Platte, we have quite an inventory of high-quality sporting venues. Our staff will be looking to network with school and community officials to create a network of facilities and contacts that can help grow this segment of the tourism industry.
The Nebraska Travel Association (www.nebraskatravelassociation.com) is an association of tourism businesses across Nebraska. They work with the Nebraska Division of Travel and Tourism (www.visitnebraska.gov) to strengthen the industry. Right now one of their most important activities is to author a bill and get recreational liability reform passed. To do that and the other legislative activities that need to take place, they have hired a lobbyist. The Association is open to membership, and not only do they need your financial support, they also need the strength that comes with larger numbers.
The Division is one of the only departments of government that actually has a strong revenue stream through the lodging taxes, and many other departments are going to be looking at that money this year. In a workshop at the Nebraska Travel Conference this past week, we were given many examples of how a state’s economy can be devastated when tourism marketing spending is diverted to other programs.
Tourism is the third largest earner of income from outside the state behind agriculture and manufacturing. It supports nearly 42,000 jobs across Nebraska, 2500 in Lincoln County alone. If we want to keep those visitors and their dollars flowing into our communities, we need to continue the marketing efforts as a state. The Nebraska Travel Association will work hard to make sure that the lodging taxes dedicated to tourism marketing and development of the industry remain in place.
I’m sure the editor of the Courier will agree when I say that I have rambled on long enough. I’ll just engage in a brief bit of shameless self-promotion and encourage all of the readers who have made it this far to go over to my personal blog at www.outbacknebraska.com. It isn’t always about Sutherland, but I do post regularly about the wonderful area we live in.
I am available either at the office (After all, it is my job to develop and promote local tourism) at 308.532.4729 or you can always reach me at home if you have some ideas about things we can do to help increase the tourist potential of Sutherland and the surrounding area.