Friday, July 05, 2013

The “Humpty Dumpty” of Community Sense of Place

According to third-party analysts, last year, Durham, North Carolina where I live hosted 9 million visitors. This is an increase of 15.8% in the number of non-residents drawn to Durham for purposes other than school or work and a 400% increase in annual visitation since community marketing commenced.

The fact that the increase is 4 to 1 for leisure over business/conference visitors can be traced to the late 1990s strategic direction taken by the Durham Tourism Development Authority, the governing board of the community’s spearhead for visitor-centric economic and cultural development (DMO.)

Today Durham’s visitation is 71% leisure and 29% business.

The transformation has not been at the expense of maintaining fair market share of other travel segments such as conferences, a part of business travel.  The diversification merely taps more into segments with greater growth potential while avoiding the capital-cost heavy arms race for mega-facilities.

Projections show these facilities will soon be stranded.

Nor is last years increase in leisure visitors due to the Durham Performing Arts Center where overall attendance remained at a commendable 400,000 including residents.  Durham was able to draw 6.37 million leisure/personal visitors last year

Last year’s increase in leisure visitation would have filled more than three additional theaters of DPAC’s size.  The increase community-wide transcends any anecdotal facility or event.

One of the work horses that Durham marketing is leveraging for this increase is its “non-profit” arts and cultural community which on average, according to another analysis through Americans for the Arts, now relies on visitors for 55% of its overall audience.

This is 73% greater than the national average of the 182 destinations participating, 85% greater than the average for North Carolina’s largest destinations and and 96% greater than the average of nearby communities/counties.

Other analyses beginning many years ago shows that 70% of attendees at Durham’s “for-profit” events and facilities are either day-trip or over-night visitors to the community.

Over the years since Durham’s DMO chose to diversify the community’s visitation, clearly many other communities have instead grown even more reliant on segments that are shrinking such as conferences, while joining the “arms race” for building even more mega-facilities.

If your community is still so fixated, a shift in strategy is in order, but the longer it is delayed the more difficult it will be to escape the eventual reality of stranded facility capital costs related to travel segments in decline.

Mortgaging visitor-centric economic and cultural development with mega-facilities creates the death-grip of codependency.

Recently, one cultural facility operator in Durham was overhead saying that they didn’t get many visitors.  When asked about their audience make-up, the response was, “They are mostly from Durham and the surrounding area.”

This facility must have forgotten that anyone living outside Durham is a visitor, whether here overnight or just for a day trip, regardless of how that facility thinks of them.

Otherwise, the comment would certainly be news to Durham elected officials who provide operating subsides to arts groups and facilities based in large part on analysis of attendees who are visitors.

That’s because true economic value-added, including tax revenue generated, can only be gained through visitors.  Residents are assumed by economic models to be spending discretionary income elsewhere if not at the event or facility in question.

Long gone are the days when metric technology forced communities to use “distance” to distinguish residents and non-residents commuting to work or school from visitors.  Durham adopted contemporary metrics nearly two decades ago but some communities haven’t, perhaps contaminating this operators view.

Still, because without Durham’s “non-profit” arts and culture offerings, 37.4% of residents would travel out of town for those experiences, economists are studying “retained tourism.”

Also, without these events and facilities, Durham’s community marketing would not be enabled to draw the 59% of those who visit for the purpose of attending while community marketing to encourage circulation by visitors on trips for other purposes harvests the remainder.

Retaining and growing a community’s distinctive cultural infrastructure and vitality cannot be taken for granted.  It can be easily cannibalized by creation of too many events or starved for volunteers and underwriting, especially when local corporate benefactors become distracted by the personal decisions of employees and executives who live elsewhere.

According to participation by the Durham Arts Council using data compilation from Durham’s community marketing organization, in a WESTAF-trademarked Creative Vitality Index, the community ranks much higher than the national average.

It also ranks much higher than North Carolina overall and higher than a comp set of other participants including Augusta, Baton Rouge, Greensboro, Little Rock, Montgomery, Norfolk, Raleigh, Richmond, Shreveport and Winston-Salem.

Still, there was a drop-off from the previous year.  Durham can’t afford to be complacent or fail to aggressively nurture, protect and retain its organic blend of presenters, events, facilities and related-small independent retailers.  Out-of-town developers have shown impatience, wanting to substitute more generic forms.

Others keep fueling more and more events without any understanding of supply and demand or how fragile a “non-profit” arts and cultural community is.  Some who should be sensitive to the risks are instead undermining Durham’s cultural vitality by unwittingly facilitating churn rather than retention.

Cultivating a community’s distinctiveness and organic appeal takes decades if not centuries.  Destroying it takes only a few careless decisions or the hubris to believe a sense-of-place is invincible.

While celebrated today, Durham’s failure to be consistently strategic and protective of its place-based assets is silently taking a toll.  Events are downsizing or disappearing, facilities are struggling, artifacts and heritage are at risk and whole categories of creative businesses are silently evaporating.

All of the marketing and “brick and mortar” development in the world cannot save or resurrect a community’s soul once it has been surrendered.

Even “all of the King’s horses and all the King’s men” won’t be able to put it back together again.

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