Brown County tourism industry feuds over how to ward off a slump

March 24, 2008

Spring arrives in Brown County as a wave of tourists--many of them from the Indianapolis area--come to hike Brown County State Park's trails, tour Nashville's shops, and visit the art studios that dot the rolling hills. They bring a welcome end to the slow season, when shopkeepers open late--if at all--and have extra time to fret about threats to local tourism, the county's dominant industry.

Lately, there has been plenty to worry about. Restaurant and lodging tax collections have stagnated in recent years. Business leaders are divided over how to market the county. A fire that destroyed much of the landmark Seasons Lodge in January 2007 was a psychological blow to local merchants. And there's a perceived competitive threat from a new casino and restored grand old hotels that reopened last year in the twin towns of French Lick and West Baden Springs 100 miles to the southwest.

Among those who stake their livelihood on tourism there is a sense that Brown County is at a crossroads.

That dilemma is evident in decisions about whether to refurbish aging hotel rooms, update restaurant decor or close shop for the off-season, local tourism consultant Teresa Anderson said.

"Brown County as a whole needs to pay more attention to the quality of its visitor product," she said. "The quality of [French Lick's] overnight product blows Brown County out of the water. We don't have a hotel room as nice as the ones in French Lick."

Last fall, Anderson left her job as head of the county's chief marketing organization, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, after one of the most open periods of acrimony in recent memory.

Critics charged the bureau with being complacent and spending too much of its lodging tax revenue on overhead and research. But the vigorous debates that erupted at government meetings and gathering places also produced new ideas:

A $28,000 television advertising campaign--a strategy the county has largely avoided in the past--drew an immediate wave of visitors from Cincinnati, where the ads ran last summer.

An Arts Industry Business Incubator opened last December to offer office space and administrative support to startup and relocating businesses. Planners hope to draw businesses related to the county's artistic heritage, but ones that diversify its retail-heavy job base. So far, it has attracted an arts auction company and a children's book merchandiser, organizer Doug May said.

A "Downtown Saturday Nights" series last spring and summer, with live music and car shows, kept visitors downtown in the evening. More important, it helped shopkeepers see the value of staying open past dinnertime, according to Chamber of Commerce President Suzannah Levett Zody.

"Nashville's got this reputation as a great place to visit, but by 5 o'clock everything shuts down," Zody said. "We're working hard to create a new energy, to show there's things to do after that."

Numbers hard to read

Brown County's woes are based largely on anecdotal evidence. There's no official count of visitors to the area. Even Brown County State Park, one of the area's biggest tourist magnets, doesn't provide an official count. Innkeeper revenue and tax collections in the county saw an uptick in 2007, but the numbers are basically flat this decade.

Hoping for a pronounced spike in sales, a group of volunteers has stepped up in the last year to show its commitment to helping the county regain its luster as a place to visit.

They have planned a lineup of new special events for this spring and summer: street fairs, farmer's markets and a Spring Blossom Arts Festival in May. And Seasons Lodge owner Andy Rogers, Nashville's largest commercial property owner, plans to begin rebuilding this summer to replace rooms lost in the fire last winter. Zody said a cautious optimism is replacing the gloom that often marks the end of winter.

"I think we have a clearer direction now than we did a year ago," she said. "Since then, I think we've really pulled together. There's still a small minority that doesn't like change, and that's been difficult. But I think we've made progress."

Sotiris Avgoustis, chairman of IUPUI's Department of Tourism, Conventions and Event Management, encouraged merchants not to abandon the Convention and Visitors Bureau's market research, which is frequently criticized for its cost.

"When these places find themselves in difficult times, often the first thing to go is research," Avgoustis said. "That makes it even harder to get back on their feet. These locations do not exist in a vacuum--they're in a global marketplace and they need to give tourists a reason to come there and spend some time. Traditional places like Brown County can have a hard time adjusting to changing customer demographics and customer expectations."

Brown County leaders must work without the millions of dollars Bill and Gayle Cook of Bloomington poured into the revival of French Lick and West Baden Springs. But more than a year after those towns sprang back to life, some in Brown County are beginning to see them as something other than a threat.

The French Lick factor

Both destinations have historic appeal--French Lick with the robber-baron glamour of its early-20th-century heyday, and Brown County as the place Hoosier Impressionist T.C. Steele and other painters moved in the same era to paint the blue haze that clings to the hills early in the morning.

In other respects, the destinations draw visitors for different reasons, and may not overlap much. Art lovers, hikers and horseback riders may have no interest in gambling, said Rick Hofstetter, owner of Story Inn south of Nashville and a member of the county's tourism commission. He said there is no consensus that French Lick has hurt Brown County business since its hotels and casino opened.

"It has not hurt us," he said. "If anything, the long-term effect will be to help us. It'll pull people into southern Indiana. ... We're appealing to very different crowds, and the bottom line is, there's plenty of tourism dollars to go around."

A shuttle bus route between the two locations is in the works, according to the Convention and Visitors Bureau's new director, Jane Ellis. She hopes the 90-minute ride one way will encourage vacationers at either location to spend a day at the other. That could help the Brown County bureau with one of its perennial goals: convincing visitors to stay longer.

Art, and everything else

Convincing visitors to turn day trips into weekend trips, or weekend trips into week-long vacations, is a promising way to increase spending in the county, Ellis said. It's also a goal that has eluded the bureau for years.

"We can get people for a day or two. The real challenge is to get them to come stay for a week," said Amy Couch, a former county commissioner who recently co-founded a vacation cabin rental business.

She said the key is advertising more than art. The bureau centers its marketing budget on its "Art Colony of the Midwest" slogan, but Couch said the county's bluegrass festivals, flea markets, wine-tasting rooms and paintball course all draw visitors who aren't interested in arts and crafts. Visitors may know about Brown County State Park's hiking trails, but not about its mountain bike trail and the $3.5 million aquatic center set to open this May, she said.

"We really pigeonhole ourselves when we choose just one of our attributes to hang our hat on," she said.

IUPUI's Avgoustis cautioned against trying to spread too broad a message.

"The more choices consumers have, the more diluted the message of any one destination becomes," he said. "Trying to expand your potential offerings is not going to help, I don't think. Reminding customers of the things they've been offering for many years would be more advantageous for them."

If Brown County sticks with promoting just one attribute, not everyone thinks it should be high-end art. Some think handmade apparel and other craft items are at least as important.

Family vacationers increasingly outnumber serious art buyers, and imported gifts increasingly compete with locally made items for shelf space, according to Moonshine Leather owner Mike Kline. Like others, he has struggled with how to persuade shoppers to choose his handmade products over cheaper imported ones.

Anderson defended the arts-focused advertising she orchestrated during her 20 years at the bureau.

"Because Brown County is very limited in its marketing budget, it makes sense to have something that stands apart," she said. "Lots of places have a small town, lots of places have shopping. Lots of places have parks and theaters. What makes us different?"

In her opinion, it's the 200-plus working artists and the natural beauty the county has so far protected from development. The value of the surrounding landscapes may be one of the least controversial sentiments among business owners.

"We have such a long history of people coming down here," Story Inn's Hofstetter said. "And we have so many unique features--the topography, the [state] park, the trails, the horseman's camp. I don't think this place is in decline. But I can see an opportunity to ratchet it up a little."

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