IU study looks into future of Orange County tourism

November 17, 2008

New tourism attractions often are promoted as economic saviors for cities and regions, particularly in depressed rural areas. But the initial enthusiasm can fade when expectations fall short.

Professors at Indiana University's Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Studies are conducting their own analysis, using Orange County as their subject.

Located in the southwestern part of the state, its 2-year-old casino at the restored French Lick Resort and the nearby restored West Baden Springs Hotel have pumped millions of dollars in economic development and hundreds of jobs into the region.

Tourism professors Charles Chancellor and Shu Cole are conducting the study that began in early 2007, just a few months after the casino opened, and collected the results that spring. The research is ongoing, though. They plan to revisit the study every three to five years to track any changes in attitude, positive or negative.

At the time, residents accustomed to the tranquil life were still enjoying their honeymoon with visiting tourists. But using similar tourism studies as a guide, Chancellor expects that eventually could change.

"It's often later on, once tourism has gotten rolling, that residents might think: 'You know, I don't enjoy sitting at this traffic light for 10 minutes,'" he said.

Yet, more than a year after the professors conducted the study, residents are still grateful for the benefits the development has brought.

Marilyn Fenton, owner of the Village Market & Antique Mall in downtown French Lick, has lived there 38 years, the past 20 of which she's been a business owner.

As one of the few members of the "old guard" left downtown — her building sports the highly visible two-story mural on the side — Fenton much prefers the present to the past.

"For a long time, people walked past empty buildings," she said. "Now the public areas are getting scraped clean, which is lovely. And there are businesses that look like they give a darn."

She estimated that visitors account for 80 percent of her business. But those who come to play the slots or blackjack for a few days rarely visit her stores, she said. Rather, it's tenants of time-share condominiums who might visit for a week and have more time for exploring. And the recent development is drawing more of them.

The only crime to beset the town recently was a bout of vandalism instigated by youngsters, Fenton said. Weekend traffic is hard to navigate, she admitted, but the tradeoff is worth it.

The assessed value of the building she owns has increased so much that her property taxes are 300-percent higher than just a few years ago.

The wait, however, was a long time coming. Local residents lobbied lawmakers for 13 years before being granted a casino license.

"For many years, [local officials] apologized for the slow pace," she said. "But this is what people are looking for."

The resort and casino opened in November 2006 and drew 1.5 million visitors, or more than 100,000 every month, in its first full year of operation. Through the first nine months of 2008, more than 977,000 walked through the turnstiles.

By comparison, the population of French Lick is just 1,925 and only 19,607 for all of Orange County, according to 2007 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Chancellor, who helped survey roughly 650 residents, presented his findings in October at the World Leisure Congress in Canada.

Here's what he found:

• Residents want tourism planning and management to benefit the community, largely by having attractions purchase and hire locally.

• They want a voice in development decisions.

• And they think the social costs — such as increased crime and traffic — so far are very low.

He and Cole expanded their research in June 2007 to include business owners and managers in French Lick, West Baden, Orleans and Paoli. Here's what they said:

• Those in French Lick and West Baden are more optimistic than counterparts in neighboring Paoli and Orleans. They favor a broader tourism effort to get visitors to travel there, too.

• More employee training is needed to help local residents land work at the new attractions.

• One of their biggest concerns is getting enough businesses to stay open later to accommodate tourists.

• And, perhaps, the most critical consequence could be increased business. At the time of the initial survey, none had experienced a drastic jump. But Chancellor expects that to change.

Indeed, the crowds could get even larger as word spreads about the region's attractions. Earlier this month, West Baden Springs Hotel made Conde Nast Traveler's Top 100 list.

In the magazine's November issue, the destination is ranked 21st among the top 75 mainland resorts, tying with Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Ariz., and the Inn on Mount Ada on Catalina Island.

Another attraction expected to boost crowds — the Valley of the Springs Resort, a hotel and water park — is expected to open next year.

The increased development naturally is welcomed by Teresa Anderson, CEO of the Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"When you expand the tourism product, the result to me is an increased, higher quality of life and place," she said. "In turn, you get resident pride, you attract jobs, and make the area attractive for other reasons."

Besides the tourism study, IU researchers also have proposed other projects to county officials, including the development of a comprehensive regional tourism plan. A lack of funding has put the project on hold.

The IU School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, and the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Studies funded the study gauging the attitudes of residents and business owners.

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