Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Preservationist Roots of North Carolina Tourism!

Legend has it that promotion of North Carolina dates to 1937 with the creation of a state advertising division but it was actually launched more than a decade earlier when the General Assembly and Governor Angus McLean restructured the geological and economic survey in 1925 into the Department of Conservation and Development.

The mission of the restructured agency included the “active promotion of the state’s commerce and industry, as well as protection of its resources” something first proposed in 1924 by Governor Cameron Morrison who was definitely not known as being a progressive but he would be compared to a few of the people leading this state’s government today.

It is easy to contrast the genius 87 years ago of fusing economic development with environmental resource protection by comparing it to the balkanization of state government today where a General Assembly is controlled by a maniacal drive to sacrifice thousands of acres of valuable roadside trees to out-of-state outdoor billboard companies at no cost.

Now to prove that their leap backward was intentional, the General Assembly has vowed to further sacrifice not only North Carolina’s unique sense of place but also its geologic stability and water and air quality with fracking.

Yes, this is every bit as backward as it sounds and rapidly earning back a reputation this state has spent decades trying to shed.  The next time you hear anyone pontificate about how “you gotta think big” you should run for your life because their hand is not only on your pocketbook but their hubris is risking the well-being of future generations.

The genius of housing both economic development and environmental protection under one department of state government began to silo first with the formation in 1927 with a division for commerce and industry which was merged with a division of public relations in that same department in 1930 just as Governor O. Max Gardner was promoting the values of trees along roadsides.

Gardner was influenced by a survey that year revealing just how blighted North Carolina had already become by roadside billboards, putting tourism and other forms of economic development in jeopardy.

In 1937 a new division of advertising was funded within the Department of Conservation and Development fueled by a new awareness of the value of the state’s scenic character to economic development, something well understood early in the 1800s but then lost first during the devastation of the Civil War and then the almost complete deforestation during the latter part of that century.

Fortunately, despite its name, this new division created in the midst of the Great Depression was staffed for the next 33 years by Bill Sharpe, a writer, photographer and former journalist with a fondness for fine cigars and a grasp of how much more important and effective publicity can be when compared to any other element of marketing communication but especially advertising.

The division changed names many times over the years from advertising to news bureau to travel information to travel and tourism etc. but its mission has remained the same: to leverage awareness of North Carolina for visitor-centric economic and cultural development.

It wasn’t until a few years after Sharpe’s death in 1970 and after North Carolinians voted overwhelmingly in 1972 to add a conservation amendment to the state constitution “to preserve as a part of the common heritage of this State its forests, wetlands, estuaries, beaches, historical sites, openlands, and places of beauty,” that the responsibilities for economic development and environmental resource protection were separated into different departments in 1973.

Perhaps keeping those dots between economic development and environmental resource protection indelibly connected, especially for anyone involved in tourism, would have prevented the divide and conquer tactics we see today where business and the environment are often pitted against one another as though they are somehow zero sum.

Hopefully we’ll go back to the future before it’s too late!

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