Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Weaving and Reweaving the Anchorage Story – Part 1

When writing about “sense of place,” I often focus on the “built” aspect because to those for whom the concept remains illusive, it is just the easiest to illustrate.

At dinner a short while ago, a friend who visited Alaska recently asked me to describe “sense of place” there, particularly around Anchorage, from the almost-decade I lived and worked there in community marketing.

His description is “expansive,” a very astute observation because he otherwise seems to view destinations more through the filter of activities and events.

But even for visitors seeking entertainment, the destination is the first consideration with activities falling fifth.  For those seeking recreation, the destination is first and activities second.

But studies of activity/attractions visitors show that three-fourths prefer real or authentic experiences to themed or fantasy experiences.

Even among the latter, say theme parks or casinos, 7-in-10 prefer real or authentic experiences.

But people who are into fantasy such as Disney are often disappointed in Alaska because they expect the vegetation to be lush and towering like the coastal Pacific Northwest or the mountains to be densely carpeted like the Rockies.

Parts of Alaska, including Anchorage, have those attributes too, but they take a backseat to how incredibly expansive the view shed is.

From Anchorage, in any direction, the views are of towering mountains, including ranges and active volcanoes hundreds of miles away, yet they seem to loom so close.  I never grew habituated to it during my near decade of community marketing there.

And it never leaves you.

When I was recruited there in early 1978 my challenge, though, was to flesh out other equally distinct aspects of Anchorage’s sense of place and weave or reweave them into a more inclusive yet ever-evolving story.

These included the quality of the light there, geology, values, history including built and natural, vegetation and wildlife, as well as the work of simplifying logistics for visitors to be able to explore all of the above.

But different than Durham a decade later where a deep and broadly embraced sense of pride was under external threat from jealous rivals, in Anchorage we had to enlist many Anchorage residents there by giving voice to the passionate corps that already felt that way.

As a legacy theme, the CLIO-winning campaign, “Wild About Anchorage” is still in use today.

Anchorage at the time was slightly larger than Spokane, WA where I had been stationed before, but 74,000 people larger at the time than Durham, NC where I would go next, even 24,000 larger at the time than North Carolina’s capital and second largest city, Raleigh.

But at the time, the population of Anchorage represented more than 40% of all Alaskans.

However, half of the population of Anchorage had lived there only six year or less and 20% less than two years.  Only 8%, whom I quickly sought out, had lived there 25 years or more.

About 17% at the time had come there from other parts of Alaska, 30% from the West coast and 14% from the Plains or Rockies.  But 18% had come from the South or border states and 13% from the Northeast including the upper Ohio Valley.

I was among the first to realize this transience when someone made sure I was among the first to receive a copy of new report published in the first few weeks after my arrival there by researchers for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Many moving there seemed either a bit condescending about Anchorage and Alaska’s scenery and sense of place or uncomfortable with their expansiveness. Some 25,000 were projected to move out the year arrived while 32,000 would move there like I did.

My arrival came within months of the first oil to flow down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and only a few years after other transformative changes including unification of the City of Anchorage, then less than 40% of the surrounding Borough’s (akin to a county) population, along with other smaller towns into the Municipality of Anchorage.

It was also only a few years after settlement of Alaska Native claims along with a vote to move the State Capital from remote Juneau to Willow, about 80 miles northwest of Anchorage, which was made moot when four years after my arrival voters rejected the cost.

When I arrived, it had also been less than a decade since the oil discoveries at Prudhoe Bay and just two since its discovery down Cook Inlet to the south and west of Anchorage.

But in 1978, Alaskans were bracing for a loss in population from departing pipeline workers only to be saved by the revolution in Iran the following year and skyrocketing oil prices.

I was just turning 30 years old as I landed there but selected in part to complete start up of Anchorage’s community marketing organization.

But also because my sensibilities were as much or more to integrate tourism into Anchorage’s sense of place as it was to complete the integration of Anchorage into tourism.

Of course, not everyone was a boomer or raider or saw themselves as a transient migrant.

I fell in with a core “stayers” and long-time residents, who in small bands, were already hard at work there preserving historic buildings, local history and culture, open space and trails, nature areas, tree canopy and beautification.

I realize now that when it came to sense of place they were catapulting Anchorage far in advance even today of much older and more established communities in North Carolina where I live in retirement.

My job was to work with these groups to be visitor-ready and weave all of these elements into a coherent Anchorage story that yet preserved other historical identities prior to unification.

Many were rightfully suspicious of tourism interests as being narrow, superficial, stereotypical, short-sighted and overly commercial, which most were and still are across America.

The groundwork laid prior to my arrival, while expert, had largely reinforced this perception.

Bridging those two perspectives is a role far too many DMOs fail to grasp or accept even today.

As was customary at the time, if at all, many in Anchorage only traced sense of place there to establishment of a 1915 tent camp erected by speculators for railroad construction workers less than three years after a couple working for the US Forest Service became the first permanent settlers.

There was both curiosity and disbelief when our fledgling organization quickly enriched the story of Anchorage to include earlier periods.

Dena’ina people who numbered 3,000 there as early as 1650 long before contact with Russian missionaries in the 1830s or even when Captain James Cook’s ship sailed to what is now Anchorage, two hundred years to the month before my arrival.

Soon a historical park organized around a 1830s log Russian Orthodox Church and the colorful Dena’ina burial spirit houses north of downtown, joined midway with the Alaska Native Heritage Center envisioned by several of us during my tenure.

I smiled when just before I retired in Durham, Anchorage officials named a new civic and convention center there after the Dena’ina, a northern relative of the Navaho and the only such group who lived along the coast.

The symbols of Anchorage’s earlier history were still being revealed as we began an inventory, including the still-producing 1896 Crow Creek Mine, dating to when there were only two hundred or fewer Americans beyond southeast Alaska.

For nearly a decade after my arrival, Cynthia Toohey, an emergency room nurse and transplanted New Yorker who eventually became head of my governing board and one of our biggest fans, began an ongoing restoration with her family.

I was astonished at its significance and how little known it had been prior to being added to the National Registry of Historic Places a few weeks after my arrival.

All we had to do was be attentive, curious and willing to reweave it into the emerging Anchorage story.

The illustrated  map shown above as an image in this post dates to 1945.  It was brought back from Alaska by the father of a Durham journalist friend of mine in 1948, the year I was born.

Possibly a place mat used in restaurants, it is precious because it captures the names of the businesses along the bluff above Ship Creek at a time when there were fewer than 30,000 residents.

It also marks a time a decade before Congress would grant Alaska statehood which had been finalized less than two decades before my arrival there in 1978.

It had only been a little more than a decade since the legislature had even organized eight portions of the state into boroughs.

In only the fifth year of my career, less than three since being minted a destination marketing executive, I was too green to realize at the time that our task of illuminating sense of place and weaving a story around what had become Anchorage was as fresh in concept as the new organization we were still polishing as its guardian.

Equidistant during that span since statehood and my arrival would occur a natural event of such magnitude that it would forever shape Anchorage’s sense of urgency about sense of place giving it a unique perspective on what is historical, both long past and near past.

More on that in tomorrow’s post.

Monday, September 29, 2014

On A Somewhat Lighter Note

Regular readers often ask me questions via social media. Two recently were requests for elaboration on two essays I posted over the summer.

The first inquiry was regarding lifestyle changes I was making and the second asked what works to get “centered” other than reading from those I have long-used and noted in an essay on reflection and renewal.

Well by August I lost 25 pounds and have maintained it.

No, I’m not one of those skinny old men.  I’m still 10-15 lbs. over what I weighed in 1972 when I graduated from college or as I started my career in community marketing the year my daughter was born more than four decades ago.

But I’m back to what I weighed when I arrived in Durham more than twenty-five years ago and considerable lighter than when a tummy role was memorialized nearly five years ago when I retired (smile.)

I was already low carb so the secret for me was finding my equilibrium was 1500 calories a day not 2,000 and identifying some items in my diet, such as mixed nuts, that were disproportionately high.

I thought it wouldn’t be noticeable, but my daughter’s reaction when she saw me at the lake tells me that extra weight is obviously first apparent in my face.  That gives me an easy place to audit each morning as I shave…okay maybe every other morning (smile.)

My goal after the weight loss was to get my body mass index down below 19% which it has been this month.  My new dietary pattern was so agreeable, it has become the new norm with a steak night once each week.

The app My Fitness Pal helped me calibrate to exactly the number of calories per day where I maintain and feel best and my partner and I are continuing to walk briskly each morning for at least 30-40 minutes or about 2 miles.

Keeping up that diary of what I eat is now part of my daily routine and the app automatically incorporates reading from my scale and exercise tracker.

So, “drum roll,” did all of this change achieve the objective?  Yes, triglyceride levels are normal as is blood pressure and cholesterol and I’ve reduced the pressure on my knees by 100 lbs.

Observations along the way?  Jeez people eat—and restaurants serve—an immense amount of starch and low grade carbohydrates.  My favorite restaurant now kids me when I substitute what I call the “Golden Corral set-up,” (three types of different vegetables…chef’s choice.)

As for alternatives to the books I read a page or two from each morning to get “centered,” a habit I formed when I was 20 years old, here are some other alternatives I also use.

I also use a flip comment a friend of mine made in front a group with which I had been enthusiastically sharing a recent finding while waiting for others to arrive.

“Ok, now that we all know how smart you are.”  It wasn’t my intent, and he was kidding, but it crosses my mind often as I begin writing each day, a reality check on my motives.

“All mindfulness is” as Grist.org blogger David Roberts described it recently to USA Today, is the ability to intercede in your own life.”  It is also what I mean by getting “centered.”

But in addition to the books I mentioned which all relate to ethics, I also rotate in some songs including hymns sung when I was a kid such as Come Thy Fount of Every Blessing (pardon the annoying and misleading ad running by a North Carolina politician.)

Another song that centers me is one that first hit the air waves a month or two after I was drawn to Durham 25 years ago.  Ironically its singer-songwriter had a hard time finding a co-writer who understood what he wanted to convey.

The song, If Tomorrow Never Comes, is a reminder that whatever comes our way, every moment must be treasured as if the last.

As a wise and mindful old woman told me when I wondered if my visits to my daughter when she was very young were intrusive, “she can’t have too many people in her life who truly love her.”

Friday, September 26, 2014

How Impact Gets Exaggerated

When early during the last stop in my four-decade career in community marketing, we began to use input-output analysis to benchmark the impact of visitor-centered economic and cultural development, our organization was quickly asked for more.

The request was from Duke University asking us for visitation inputs to what has become a similar periodic computation of its impact on Durham, North Carolina, where I still live in retirement.

I remember initially having to go back and forth to explain why the University couldn’t just add up attendance at its various venues for sports, performing arts, museums and nature areas and trumpet it as generated by the University.

Airports similarly make mistakes on economic impact studies if they are not careful to net out the impact from residents and visitors not drawn just for the purpose of being at the airport such as people there to do business with the airport itself.

I explained that while the University did generate some of that activity, a good portion was from visitors here for other purposes who happened to also take in an event or feature at Duke.

Many are also the same visitors taking in more than one event or site and to merely tally them would be duplication.

This portion qualifies as “participation” in economic activity but not economic “value added.”  At the time, we settled on terming it “generated and participated in.”

But the same clarifications had to be made each year and possibly still do.

The same is true of destinations that might try to leverage more respect by aggregating attendance of all features.  Without an input-output analysis of spending, even if they remember that resident spending never qualifies as visitor impact, the gross numbers do not equal value added to the economy. 

Many of the attendees are the same visitors taking in different events while here for other purposes.  To lump them together may create a short term wow factor but it will also backfire and lesson credibility.

Research in Durham, for example, measures not only participation levels by visitors in various activities but the percentage of visitors for whom that was the main purpose versus the percentage taking in the activity on a trip for another purposes.

For example, the latter represents a third of performing arts attendance, 40% of shoppers, 20% attending sports events and 60% of those attending festivals overall.  This is even true of those attending conventions and meetings.

Organizations are under a lot of pressure from governing boards and sponsors to justify their efforts.  But rather than gloss over these distinctions, it is better to educate these overseers on the following:

  • Drawing visitation is in part a collective effort.
  • A part of that effort is the community’s overarching marketing both to lower barriers to visitation, get on the list for future consideration and generate circulation.
  • It is smart to cross promote and also go after low-hanging fruit, such as visitors here for other purposes including visiting friends and relatives.
  • When non-residents are hired or sponsors and vendors from out of town used, it subtracts from economic impact as leakage.   It also undermines organizations that provide underwriting from taxpayers.

For example, local officials are often perplexed when they see cars from out of town dealers displayed in front of city-owned facilities because they know the sales tax on vehicles sold here represents a significant amount of sales tax revenue used to provide local services.

I’ve tried to smooth this over by explaining that this is one of the results when 75% of attendance at these facilities are visitors, which is a good thing.

It is natural for out of town dealers to buy up sponsorships because they are trying to reach the visitors attending the event.

Local dealers aren’t interested because only 25% are residents.  They aren’t interested in the visitors because contrary to what purveyors of advertising on or in news outlets want us to believe, people rarely commute to by cars.

Still, officials also have a point.  It signals to resident taxpayers that the facilities and events that do this aren’t very loyal.  It undermines support for future facilities, even the so-called “back end” incentives to spur developments.

Those negotiating the latter often fail to stipulate behaviors that will leverage more economic bang for the buck, such as using local vendors or jawboning the importance of hiring locally or making sure new hires relocate here.

Durham’s marketing agency is considered a best practice now by accreditation standards, in part because it not only employs input-output metrics but it has learned to do them for local facilities and events.

In reports such as the one recently published and shown in the image above, the agency gives examples of leakage as well as creates a chart that breaks down why communities that fail to take this factor into account are also guilty of grossing up impact.

For example, Durham visitation creates nearly a billion dollars in spending but only $766 million is spent here in Durham.  But because of leakage such as using out of town vendors, employing non-residents and visitors misdirected while they are here only $560 million is “value-added” to the Durham economy.

In other words, local business practices, if tweaked, could result in another $200 million for the local business climate and a percentage increase in local tax revenues generated from visitors alone.

Policy makers in Durham are taking heed, although they may need to talk to American Tobacco a little bit.  Even just a little jawboning can be very rewarding.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Edifice Envy - Questions Not Asked

A friend who was standing in a long line caught my attention recently as I exited the restroom during opening night intermission of the London musical, Dirty Dancing.

We exchanged mixed feelings about the increasing use of video in such productions and reminisced that the movie upon which the musical is based featured North Carolina as a stand-in for the Catskills.

Then, noting that some cities seem eager to replicate the Durham Performing Arts Center where I live, he asked rhetorically as we parted what I thought they might be missing.

It gave me food for thought as I returned to my seat.  In my experience of meeting over the years with scores of cities on such field trips, it isn’t what they ask but what they aren’t asking that often makes the difference.

DPAC is one of hundreds of large-scale venues that have opened in just the last decade.  Even before it opened, consortiums of consultants, funders and managers began wringing their hands about the consequences.

Many researchers have begun digging into this but it will take a decade or two for any correlations of the impact on local cultural ecosystems to be established.

Cities looking with envy to replicate performing arts, sports or convention centers usually take these field trips to reassure reluctant stakeholders.  Durham initiators took one to Greenville, South Carolina for example.

But rarely are the right questions asked that will drill down into what may be anomalies.

Durham’s new theater has been a huge success so far but the reasons often go unexamined during these field trips, especially factors that are serendipity.  For example:

1) Durham’s success is not because it lured Nederlander and the company’s equally exceptional non-profit partner PFM as operators, but because Nederlander came knocking.

The company, one of the largest owners and operators of theaters in the world, was eager to fill a geographic gap between other theaters it operates, and in the process, eliminate or undermine a competitor.

Everyone here was flattered and relieved.

2) Only 25% of the center’s patrons are local residents, give or take a point, the same percentage of Americans in the nationwide Census who take in concerts and plays, something that hasn’t changed for more than a decade.

Having more and larger facilities does not generate more participation.  It just means it is spread thinner.

In Durham as a whole, 29.8% of the adult population attends live performing arts each year compared to the 24.9% attending popular entertainment such as concerts and clubs, which is right at the national average.

The former is less than a point higher than and the latter the same as Greensboro which recently visited Durham and announced plans to emulate our large-scale venue.

Wake County, which lost its Broadway series due to the startup in Durham, still draws only 1.2% fewer residents for performing arts overall and the same percentage as Durham to popular entertainment including concerts and clubs.

3) As a result, Durham’s large-scale venue is heavily dependent on day trip visitors for patrons, something made possible because the metro area it centers is near another anchored by Raleigh, North Carolina’s second largest city, which quickly shut down its touring Broadway series after DPAC opened.

But Durham visitors beyond 50 miles still don’t participate any more in the performing arts than they did prior to the opening of a large-scale venue.  Never has having more capacity changed the percentage of visitors interested in performing arts.

For any large-scale theater to succeed, it must draw visitors, including a good share who come to a community for other purposes.  Without being so close to a another major population center, Durham would be in big trouble.

But if the hundreds of communities that just built new large-scale venues are in the same predicament, something will have to give and usually that is a hollowing out of local arts creation.

4) Durham also negotiated a very favorable revenue sharing arrangement, supplemented by seat fees and special event parking fees in decks used.  What doesn’t show on that bottom line is tens of millions of dollars to relocate prior tenants and subsidies for nearby development.

5) Durham has a highly “accredited” community destination marketing organization known to be far more successful than its well funded counterparts and willing to try and defend smaller, more indigenous but equally valuable elements from bullying or erosion. 

Visiting officials also often fail to ask what Durham could or would have done differently, for example:

1) The center was apparently built on the cheap, forcibly in part, because initiators boxed themselves in with a tax funding formula to avoid voter and state scrutiny, thus, those extraordinarily long lines for the rest rooms.   The architect performed a miracle.

2) A pivotal opportunity was missed to weave the theater into the fabric of Durham’s “built” sense of place.

While there is a great view of ingredients to Durham’s sense of place from its spectacular glass lobby, it will likely be blocked by future development. The community missed an opportunity to make DPAC more “Durham.”

At the last minute, brick was added to the exterior at the insistence of the Mayor, but the building could have been designed coherent with its setting by picking up architectural details

Look, for example, at the National Historic Landmark just across a quad or either of the two surrounding National Historic Districts.  The interior could have been made to seem more temporal by using historic images of other theaters or performances here.

Or the new theater could have picked up the remarkable lines of the historic Austin-Heaton Flour Mill formerly on that site or evoked the beloved Durham Union Station that had stood across the track.

The design of the theater has grown on Durham residents but like the Detention and Judicial centers to the east, it isn’t coherent to its context.  As noted recently by one architectural expert:

“Cities have their own patterns of building, influenced by the pace of life, the quality of light, historic traditions or simply the materials available.

Buildings that acknowledge these patterns reinforce the sense of a particular place — they belong.”

Those on these inter-city visits, or inspection tours, also neglect to ask if the theater was a priority at the time or did it leapfrog higher cultural priorities?

They could also ask where Durham fell at the time in comparison to similar communities in the number of theaters or in overall visitor participation compared to averages.

Also questioned could be why philanthropic sources weren’t willing to fund the proportion of costs born in the other communities that were evaluated such as Greenville?  Was that a reflection of other community needs?

Was there any reason to build an additional performance hall prior to having a cultural master plan?

All of these questions go far beyond the questions usually asked during these familiarization tours and get at the overall question of “knowing what we know now, what would or could Durham have done differently” and still achieved similar or even better outcomes?

The problem, of course, is that to many people, questions are criticism.

Among those considering such a facility, anyone raising them might be ostracized as critics or naysayers because questions can be threatening to those who may have already made up their minds with very little information.

In turn, it is probably much too soon for even outspoken Durham to be introspective or if has, then forthcoming about what it would have done differently or volunteering that its success may have been been as much circumstantial as exceptional.

Regardless, history tells us that when provided such objectivity, enthusiasts have often dismissed it, even shopping around for consultants who would say yes after others concluded no.

It takes a truly exceptional community to put ego aside and pass up a challenge.

It took two or three decades after similar spates of overbuilding of other kinds of large-venue facilities before experts and researchers were able to truly and accurately assess the ramifications.

Even then there were outcries and choruses of angry denials.

Judging by studies and papers already underway such as the study “Is Bigger Better? The effect of capital facilities investment on non-profit financial vulnerability,” by Dr. Joanna Woronkowicz now under review.

Consortiums that began meeting under the aegis of Americans for the Arts nearly a decade ago, maybe those involved in the performing arts, will enlighten more quickly.

Or by then, will the devotees of such facilities as a means to achieve tangentially related but very different objectives such as “anchoring” turn to overbuilding yet another type of facility, hoping to feed what Architect Magazine columnist Aaron Betsky calls an “edifice complex?”

The history of such overbuilding over the last century suggests the latter.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Priceless Little Leather Pocket Book

My concern that Durham, North Carolina, where I live is losing valuable artifacts and records every day that passes without erection of a full-fledged Museum of Durham History is personal.

One of my great (x2) grandfathers and a great-great-great-grandfather selected in 1846 as part of a small vanguard to blaze a largely new pathway into the Rocky Mountains kept a diary.

He wasn’t the official diarist for the company, but his notes shatter some stereotypes of what it was like as they marked and created infrastructure along the 1,100 route that others would follow through territory of the United States yet to be organized.

Before I touch on some of his revelations, I must note that when I was growing up, both sides of my family were pretty mum about my ancestral involvement on that wagon train.

I’m sure they were aware, but even as we passed through from Idaho to see family, my parents neglected to mention that the names of these ancestors were inscribed on a monument that was then centered at the Salt Lake intersection at Main Street and South Temple.

But none of us realized my great-great-grandfather had kept a diary until someone unrelated who had read it growing up, turned it over to family members in Idaho the year I graduated from college.1847 Diary of Charles Alfred Harper

After memorial copies were made and distributed to descendants, the small little leather pocket book was placed for safekeeping in the Mormon Church Historical Department where then one of my professors was an assistant.

His prominence in the vanguard group was only as chief wheelwright due to being a carriage-maker back as a sixth-generation Quaker-American in his native Upper Providence, east of the Schuylkill.

In his diary, he describes being chosen as one of ten people to hunt buffalo along the trail when provisions were needed and standing as guard during stops.

But he was also one of the head cooks chosen by his group of ten men (they organized into 14 groups but there were only three women and two children.)

Meals included a hot breakfast and dinner with a cold lunch prepared in advance for a midday stop to feed, hydrate and rest the livestock.

The wagons weren’t all uniform and they didn’t travel single file like they do in the movies unless required by the terrain.  They traveled five vehicles abreast, some buggies and smaller wagons, some covered wagons, but not the big Conestoga wagons.

The diary covers several years including this four month journey, and a trip back to visit his mother prior to departure.  It includes a journal of services provided, detailing the date, for whom, the repair and payment if any.

These tended to be primarily converted farm wagons.  Usually people walked or rode alongside.  Mostly they used huge teams of oxen as draft animals to pull the wagons.

Oxen are mature, castrated male cattle, as compared to milk or breeding cows and bulls or beef cattle which are steers.  But at the time, a steer who reached four years old was considered an ox.

American oxen were generally 1,800 to 2,000 pounds of pure muscle, standing about six feet tall, about that long and eight feet around.  Oxen were preferred to draft horses because they were better in muddy conditions including when teams doubled up to cross rivers.

They could also survive on little food of poor quality which was common as they crossed the Great Plains of Nebraska and the High Plains of Wyoming, especially where overgrazed by huge herds of Buffalo that would stretch for a day at a time.

This vanguard unit circled their 73 wagons when possible at night with the livestock inside the loop, including 66 oxen, 52 mules, 93 horses (mostly saddle,) 19 cows, 17 dogs and some chicken.

A bugle sounded wake-up at 6 a.m. and when it was time to retire each night at 8:30 p.m.  Often they danced, played cards and sang at night, sometimes according to my great-grandfather, a little too loudly.

His dry sense of humor comes through when he mentions speeches that were sometimes “rather long” or “ not very edifying.”

He also describes in a passport application soon after this journey that he stood 5’8”, a little bald with grey eyes, a Roman nose, full mouth, ruddy complexion and oval face.

This ancestor’s favorite song was “leather breeches,” a jig danced with “controlled abandon” across America at that time.  But it would have been without musical instruments which were deemed too heavy to bring along.

Although these wagons could carry up to a ton and a half, the uncertainty of this vanguard journey would have meant they were kept as light as possible.

If they sang about their final destination, they would have used California, the term at the time for anything over the Rockies.

I’m sure an a cappella version of Come, Come Ye Saints, a hymn penned a year earlier and put to the music of an older camp revival melody earlier by a member along for that journey, was already as popular as it is still today.

Another was probably Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.

The diary records that the party stopped to help others traveling across the Platt River on the California Trail and that some were fellow Missourians who had some members of the group out of that state less than a decade earlier.

Each member of the vanguard was required to have a rifle primed and ready to fire (flintlock) at a moment’s notice, with a piece of leather to keep the firing mechanism dry.

They often encountered Nation Americans including Otoe, Sioux and Pawnee, the former at war with the latter, as well as Arapaho, Cheyenne and Shoshone.

The diary records a visit to a burned out Pawnee village and the huge size and construction of lodges.  Sioux visited and stayed overnight inside the circle of wagons one night.

But others bands often attempted to extort food and other supplies.

We are blessed to have this account, written in the hand of an ancestor, but I wonder how and when it slipped away for so long?  As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, this makes me concerned that families with deep Durham connections may be losing sight of the importance of artifacts and records so important to preserve.

Hopefully, officials in my adopted hometown will soon realize the same sense of urgency for a Museum of Durham History long shown among residents in public opinion polls.

Heritage is perishable.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Prompted by an Old Playbook To Look Back on a Transformation

The desperation being felt across the country by community destination marketing organizations (DMOs) isn’t new; it is just coming from a new source.

Feeling the effects of immense overbuilding during the last decade, performing arts halls are now borrowing from a decades-old playbook used by hotels when that visitor-related industry overbuilt in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Seeing the chatter online has also piqued my interest to look back into studies conducted for the communities I served during my now concluded career.

But first a word about the side-effects of overbuilding and how data such as this can serve a preventative and also illuminate the emergence of a destination.

Overbuilding leads tourism-related organizations to demand that DMO resources meant for the community as a whole be redirected instead to their exclusive benefit.

Blinded by insecurity, they ignore that the way visitor-centered economic development is supposed to work is that a DMO’s role is to tell the overarching story to get the community as a whole on the list for visitor consideration.

First and foremost, this is to fuel the overall business climate and tax base.

As first-line beneficiaries, it is the responsibility of individual businesses, organizations and facilities such as these to then harvest their share.

Trying to monopolize and divert resources meant for the community as a whole is cannibalistic and ultimately self-destructive but it’s what happens as a result of overbuilding.

Ironically, it is cookie-cutter mainstream facilities/events which, lacking differentiation, then in desperation turn and seek to hollow out the very core of community appeal, destroying the very source of their sustenance.

Their “sameness” from community to community, whether it is formula hotels, convention centers, stadiums, and now performance halls, is at the heart of their internecine desperation.

They come to fear that only by monopolizing community assets can they survive.

This is why defending community marketing from special interests has been the singularly most important challenge for DMO executives and governing boards for more than four decades.

One of the first things we did while jumpstarting a DMO for Durham, North Carolina where I spent the last two decades of my career was to immediately challenge “conventional wisdom” by developing and analyzing data.

As had been the case in two of my previous DMO startups, we were bombarded with anecdotal opinions, e.g. “No one will come to Durham for anything but business;” “Durham will  forced to feed on the barebones after Raleigh is sated;” “Durham is just a stopover;” and my personal favorite: “There is nothing to do in Durham.”

Because I had seen this drill before, it was clear that one of the first things I needed to do was to scrounge through old studies for data while immediately engaging tourism researchers at NC State University to begin regularly mining primary research for relevant data.

One study I found published from 1976 interviews estimated that less than 5% of visitors staying in Durham hotels came here for the purpose of leisure/pleasure, or about 155,400 visitors in all.

The author projected that by 1990, which was coincidentally, the Durham marketing agency’s first full year of operation, this number would have increased less than 2% a year over that 14 year span to about 198,000.

I knew the numbers were soft because the consultant, as nearly all did back then, had only the observations of local hoteliers to rely on.  I knew from experience that few hoteliers at the local level had a handle on why their guests traveled to a location.

Instead, they often used “rules of thumb” that had by then been passed down from generation to generation of managers, especially those going to hotel schools.

Unfortunately, these had never been verified or updated with actual research.

I suspected that this 1976 number was probably over estimated and the 1990 number was underestimated, based on past research I had conducted during two previous start-ups to promote other similarly sized communities.

But the overall visitation growth rate, without destination marketing to fuel it, didn’t seem that far off.

The study was pretty good for that era, if a bit old school.  I’ve seen far worse over the years. Telling was that it didn’t make any attempt to include daytrip visitors or excursionists as they were called back then.

Of course, it had been only two years prior to that 1976 study that a group of us joined forces to get what was then the International Association of Convention Bureaus, the International body for DMOs, to add “& Visitor” to its name, something overlooked since the 1890s and overdue since the 1930s.

Those 1976 observations made more than twenty years before Durham’s DMO start-up also estimated that in 1976, 19.6% of Durham’s overnight visitor traveled here on business, 22.5% for medical purposes and 46% for conventions.

It projected that by our 1990 start up, leisure visitation would have fallen to just over 4%, business travel would have risen to 42.8%, medical travel was projected to increase to 34% and conventions - if a convention center were built - which it had been in 1989, were projected to increase from from 18.8% to 50.5%.

Something just didn’t seem right about those numbers.  Our initial inventories documented that Durham already had in place a wealth of cultural and historic visitor features above and beyond the many found on the campuses of Duke and North Carolina Central universities here.

I could hardly wait to see what the actual data revealed.

In the meantime we had our hands full teaching festivals, historic sites, performance halls and nature areas both to be visitor-ready and how to harvest their share of visitors.

Durham’s first ever visitor census, which was completed in 1990 (one of the first anywhere) could only delve into overnight visitation that first year but it gave me data to compare.

By 1992, updates included daytrip visitors of 50 miles away or more and a couple of years later, Durham became one of the first in the nation to measure daytrip visitors from closer than 50 miles.

The data collected that first year revealed that the percent coming for business (excluding conventions) was actually 29% vs. the 42.8% projected 14 years earlier.  Medical travel was 16% vs. 34%.  Those attending conventions stood at 2.9% vs. the 18.8% projected.

Instead of the 4% projected, the proportion coming here for leisure/pleasure (excluding visiting friends and relatives [VFR] and families visiting students) was actually 14%.

In just a little more than two years, as Durham ramped up community destination marketing for the first time, the proportion coming for business held even at 30.9% while conventions grew to nearly 6% and the proportion coming for medical treatment fell as a percentage to 11.2%.

Visitors to Durham for leisure/pleasure (excluding VFR and student’s families) had also grown from 14% to 16.8%.  I exclude those two groups of leisure visitors for comparison, but actually they were still important groups among whom we promoted greater circulation and spending.

We could also tell from the data, which of the visitor features were catching on to what we had been teaching them about how to harvest visitors here for other purposes.

The hardest part was to get them to accept the difference between those prompted by an activity vs. those who would take it in during the course of trips for other purposes.

Repeatedly, studies show that the destination is the first decision made when planning a trip, even if an activity is a prompt.  Even day trippers are filtering a decision through image, value/cost, how to get around and safety before getting to uniqueness, entertainment or even culinary reputation.

This all adds up to why destination marketing must never be sacrificed to fill seats.  But evaluating the percentage that are prompted by an activity vs. taking it in on trips for other purposes is also a good way to measure efforts to generate circulations.

While the pool of overall visitors had also already grown substantially, following those initial years of promotion, a closer looks showed that sports events had surged from nominal to 3.6%, festivals held even, sightseeing fell to 3.6%, shopping to 2.7%, entertainment to 2.2% and nature/outdoor recreation to 1%.

All were harvesting more visitors, but some organizations and facilities had obviously caught on faster than others, and because of turnover and development, a DMO’s work in this regard would never be done.

The data had another impact, though.  It helped slow the speculative overbuilding of hotels, because although there would continue to be a healthy annual increase, feasibility consultants were now using data to better inform development decisions.

Unfortunately, convention centers and performance halls often pushed forward with ulterior motives in mind such as propping up property value.  Many have yet to learn this crucial lesson enabled by communities that still don’t collect data.

By 1995, nearly all of Durham’s named restaurants, festivals, performance halls and stadiums were harvesting 70% or more of their patronage from visitors.

The evolution of a comprehensive community calendar, now a must-have best practice, was helping events better calibrate expectations for underwriting, attendance and volunteers, as well as optimize date selection and tempering overdevelopment of events.

By 1998, just eight years after beginning to ramp up Durham’s first promotion, the community was already exceeding its fair share for conventions and meetings, but the majority of even overnight visitors to Durham were now here for leisure/pleasure purposes.

Overall, average stay and party size were improving.

With the proportion of overall business travel - especially conventions - in obvious long term decline by then, the writing was on the wall.

It was clear that Durham had to try to maintain higher than fair market share in those declining segments while racing to keep visitation growing from year to year by tapping more and more into the proportion of travelers taking leisure/pleasure trips.

It was also clear by that time that mainstream events, formula stores and franchise architecture were beginning to hollow out or put at risk the indigenous districts, events, natural infrastructure and cultural ecosystem that gave Durham its authenticity and appeal.

The first sign was when the capacity of heretofore vibrant facilities and events began to erode while seemingly oblivious developers and creators continued to pile on more and more.

Last year, the proportion of overnight visitors here for leisure/pleasure had increased through effective community marketing many times over, to nearly 73%.

Overall by person stays, overnight visitors to Durham are now 29% for business (excluding conventions,) still above fair market share, 8% for medical treatment and 15% for conventions (also above market share and nearly twice the national average.)

Among day trip visitors, not only has participation levels quintupled for festivals and sports events has nearly tripled but nature/outdoor and performing arts have each increased six times what it was early on, by five times even before the fabulous DPAC.

Shopping participation has grown nearly 15 times over.  More telling though, is that destination marketing is also getting visitors to circulate beyond the thing that may have been their main focus.

Nearly a third of those who take in performing arts came for other purposes, as did 40% of shoppers, 20% of those taking in sports events and 60% of those attending festivals.

Even a third attending a convention or meeting did so on trips for other purposes.

Key is that the pool of overall visitation each year to Durham is quadruple what it was, and more and more facilities have learned to not only harvest their share but tap into visitors here for another purpose.

Lodging guest rooms have grown by a stable one and a half times what they were when community marketing commenced, just 40% of the speculative rate they had been before good data began to inform decisions.

However, the desperation from over development has now shifted to cultural entities such as theaters and festivals.  Some have yet to learn that lesson or when they were suppressed by the first entities to use the playbook, some are eager to use now to suppress others. 

Hopefully, here and across the country, they soon will.  People are now overwhelmingly drawn to communities with a sense of authenticity including indigenous facilities and events.

This is true even for those who ultimately take in mainstream events that can be seen almost anywhere, unaware that overdevelopment of these is putting what drew them in the first place at risk.

Ironically, once that authenticity and unpretentiousness is lost, they will go elsewhere as will the mainstream facilities and events, leaving communities not worth visiting.

Before it’s too late in more and more cities, hopefully they come to understand their desperation is of their own making and will fall back into their place in the fabric of place.

Until then, communities that rely on data and sense of place must weather another storm of special interests.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Along a River Bank of Convergence

On one my first cross-country road trips west from Durham, North Carolina, where I live, I stood for awhile before crossing at a point along the Mississippi River of unusual ancestral convergence.

It was heavily wooded, nearly 900 river miles north of Vicksburg where Mugs and I crossed this year on our outbound southern route, where the trees seemed to get shorter and shorter before we crossed.

Then they disappeared altogether for an hour across Louisiana floodplain before reappearing and then growing taller and taller again up through east Texas.

More than ancestral convergence was crossing my mind that day of reflection on the banks of the river further north.  To understand signature moments in one’s gene pool, it helps to look at context.

I’m the sixth generation of Americans who settled along the western slopes of the Rockies, my two grandsons are the eighth, dating back to Puritan-Huguenots, Quakers, Remonstrants and Amish Americans dating to the 1600s.

But those Atlantic roots stretching from Maine to the Carolinas migrated across the Appalachians after the Revolutionary War, most by the early 1800s, to first create settlements in what are now Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.

By 1840, nine of my great (x3) grandparents (one through adoption) and all but four of my sixteen great (x2) grandparents along with a few (great x4s) had all converged to within a mile or two of where I stood that day in reflection.

The river there juts out to create that little triangle “stub” of Iowa formed along the Des Moines River border with Missouri just before it empties into the Mississippi.

Even by the mid-1820s when the first set of my great (x3) grandparents began to purchase land in Illinois, everything across the river from me that day was called “unorganized” territory.

In 1824, when as part of an agreement to relocate the Sac and Fox people across the river, that little stub of what would become Iowa one day was “unorganized territory,” designated for people of mixed ethnicity, never to claim or own, just to live.

That year was also when the first of my great (x4) ancestors migrated to Illinois and a year before other great (x3s) bought land there in preparation.

That designation was withdrawn by Congress after the Black Hawk uprising by disaffected warriors.  By that time three sets of my great (x3) grandparents had migrated to north and central Illinois as settlers soon to be joined by a fourth set.

They were all contemporaries of future U.S. President of Abraham Lincoln who had just moved there, one or two who became friends.

But the land across the river from where I stood on that trip, in fact all of what we call Iowa, the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin, were still not even territories yet.

“Unorganized” means no established order or structure other than occasional U.S. Army patrols, fit only for Native American peoples forced there and often at war with themselves.

Think in today’s terms of a highway sign, “no services for 2,000 miles.”

Beginning in 1831, all of my ancestors who had migrated to Illinois or who had been born west of the Appalachians had joined the Mormons, a “restorationist” Christian religion only organized the year before.

Three would then migrate to northern Missouri following the Missionaries who had converted them to settle an area where Mormons hoped to assemble at the edge of the frontier, safe from internal strife and persecution that had already begun to dog them.

However, soon their numbers would alarm some Missourians fearful of losing control of their county.  Counties then and even neighboring cities were becoming either anti-slavery or pro-slavery and the majority of Mormons there were quietly abolitionist.

Barely ten years prior, the territorial legislature there had petitioned for statehood but as a “slave” state, which was accepted by Congress but only after a compromise that also accepted Maine as a free state.  They also forbid slavery in the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase.

This included territory yet to be organized into Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana.  This also extended to what would become Idaho, Oregon and Washington, then jointly controlled but not yet organized by Great Britain and the United States.

What would become Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada Arizona, and part of Kansas were still a foreign country, the newly independent Republic of Mexico formed just a few years before my Mormon ancestors arrived in Missouri.

But what really set some Missourians off was the Mormon belief that Native Americans were descended from ancient Israelites.

Not everyone in Missouri was hostile to Mormons nor was the new state fully organized when the Mormons arrived and began to settle first around Independence which has been founded four years earlier, establishing the first school.

Much of northern Missouri above where the Missouri River diagonally slices that state from north of what would become Kansas City past Independence, trending south to empty into the Mississippi at Saint Louis was designated only as non-county area as Mormons congregated.

Two years later, just before that distinctive nose of land was added to Missouri and as another non-Mormon but soon-to-be great (x2) grandfather was being born much further southeast along the Osage River, angry mobs forced Mormons around Independence to abandon their homes, businesses and belongings and flee for their lives across the Missouri.

So the Mormons sought peaceful redress from state officials represented by a newly-minted defense attorney named Alexander William Doniphan, a future hero of the Mexican-American War.

Also representing another county in the Legislature, Doniphan engineered legislative creation of a new county specifically for Mormons, designating still more land north as they overflowed into nearby counties.

In those days and dating from colonial times, counties each raised mostly volunteer militias which in the hands of vigilantes were often used to harass people and groups that were out of favor.

Failing at peaceful recourse, just as Texans were revolting against Mexico and being overrun at the Alamo, the Mormons were forming a county militia to defend against units of other Americans from surrounding counties.

This resulted in bloody confrontations including a massacre of Mormons where one of my great (x3) grandfathers was killed.  So the Governor at the time, an Independence partisan, issued an order in 1838 for the Mormons to flee the state or be exterminated.

To pay honor was why I cut across northern Missouri along U.S. Route 36 on the return leg of this year’s cross country trip.

Fragments fled east along that route toward Hannibal and up to Quincy, Illinois, while others blazed a new road trace up into the just-organized Iowa Territory which ran clear to the Canadian border and back eastward along the border.

They settled in what they hoped would be a peaceful safe haven along both sides of the Mississippi River including land acquired by Mormon leaders in that little stub that is now Iowa, across from where I stood that day.

By 1840, all but four of my ancestors, who were yet to migrate from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and northern England, had converged at that very point along both sides of the river and began for the third time in just ten years to build anew.

But by late 1845, there too, Mormon leaders had been murdered by mobs, despite the intervention by Illinoisans from places like Quincy.

They were again threatened with genocide if they didn’t immediately flee.

Mormons rapidly organized and attempted to hurriedly build 2,500 wagons, enough to carry everyone in groups of five or six per wagon on the 1,300-mile journey to safety in the Rockies, part then in Mexico.

One of my great-great grandfathers, a former carriage maker and now chief wheelwright, played a key role while many Mormons tried to sell their homes and possessions to buy wagons or buggies, oxen and riding horses.

Preparations were cut short by mob violence and one of my great (x3) grandfathers was asked to be the first with his family to cross the river in early February 4, 1846, right at the point I was standing during that trip with Mugs to rendezvous with my grandsons.

Followed by others in the dead of winter, their mission was to set up a camp where others could assemble and get better prepared, the first of a series of camps across southern Iowa.

My Mormon involvement lapsed more than four decades ago.

But while we don’t get to pick our cultural heritage even if ancestral, it is always a part of us and I am very proud and respectful of mine.

I’ve provided the context in this essay because standing at that point of ancestral convergence along the Mississippi that day gave me a better understanding of what led up to that epic journey.

My great (x3) grandfather and my pre-teen great-great grandfather didn’t have to blaze a trail the day they led the exodus across the river.

Now traveling first through Iowa Territory, still a year from statehood, they merely followed that Mormon Trace blazed by other ancestors eight years earlier as they fled Missouri.

At Council Bluffs, they were two of three of my ancestors selected to blaze the Mormon Trail, another 1,100 miles through still “unorganized” country to the Rockies and among the first handful first ride down into the Salt Lake Valley.

That new trail largely followed the Oregon Trail, first opened to wagons at Independence shortly after Mormons had been forced out,but on the other side of the Platt River.

In their diaries, my ancestors mention stopping along the way to help those on the other side and in turn, those returning east would carry letters back to loved ones waiting to depart.

But they had learned by then to be extremely wary of other frontier Americans.

By 1860, all of my other ancestors had arrived and one set of great-great grandparents was creating the first permanent settlement in Idaho soon to be a territory.  Others had created settlements in Nevada, then a part of the Utah Territory, California and Arizona.

Westerns are resilient but none more than Mormons who had a lot of practice before finally finding refuge there.

Each July 24th, up and down that flank of the Rockies, they stop to celebrate the arrival of that first vanguard wagon train to arrive often when I was growing up with re-enactment parades.

On one of my visits I have promised my grandsons to visit the monument where their names are inscribed among the first to arrive.

When they are ready for context, this essay will be waiting.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Infographic - Video Content & Viewing Behavior

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Ingredient Missing from Restaurant Sustainability

I found interesting in a new survey by the National Restaurant Association: that only 39% of restaurants overall recycle plastic, cans or glass.

This includes nearly half of all full service restaurants, but only a third of quick service restaurants (fast food.)  The percentage that recycle cardboard and paper goes up to 67% and 66% respectively.

Around 61% use products made from recycled materials but only 4-in-10 use products that could be composted.

In fact, only 17% compost food waste, although 75% regularly track the amount of food waste.

A 2012 report noted that food serve operations alone lost 86 billion pounds of food in 2008 or 19% of the U.S. retail supply.

Between 4 to 10 percent of food loss in restaurants is lost during kitchen preparation.  Diners waste, on average, 17% percent of meals or more only 45% is taken home as leftovers.

Only 22%, including 20% of full service restaurants, donate leftover food to food banks or other groups.

This contributes to the fact that 40% of the nation’s overall food supply is going to waste each year.

On average, each American wastes 209 to 254 pounds of edible food each year.  In the Eco Pulse survey last year, 39% of Americans felt the “most green guilt” over wasting food.

One area of “sustainability” conspicuously missing from the NRA survey is the number of restaurants paying at least a “living wage.”

For nearly two decades now, how businesses treat people has been one of the three pillars of the “Triple Bottom Line” of sustainability.

In a poll of small businesses this year, 61% of those in the restaurant or retail industries supported raising the minimum wage.  Of course the minimum wage is nowhere near the livable wage which is computed specifically by areas of the country.

The restaurant business is tough, especially for locally-owned chef-driven restaurants that give places such as Durham, North Carolina where I live a “foodie” reputation nationwide with visitors, a characteristic now cited as important on “intensity” indices by leisure travelers including 71% of Millennials.

But so is sensitivity to prices.

As noted by the Durham News Service, a new breed of local chef-restaurant owners in Durham are now leading the charge across the nation to voluntarily pay their co-workers a living wage.

It is based on the sound business principles such as paying people a living wage and a sense of fairness resonate just as much with residents and visitors here as using locally sourced foods.

Polls by both Gallup and Harris Interactive, show that among the several industries in the tourism sector, restaurants are viewed well above average with a net positive of 60 points and 53 points on public opinion polls respectively.

But that doesn’t mean this handful of distinct industries shouldn’t work on improving outdated business models to be fairer when it comes to treatment of employees.

By nearly 4 to 1, Americans are now more likely than in the past to investigate business behavior before buying including 6-in-10 who decide not to do business with an entity based on how it conducts itself and 7-in-10 who talk about it in conversations with others.

If you think that won’t matter, just ask the NFL.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

If A Statue Should Be Erected One Day

With all due respect to a long-time friend and contemporary of mine who led the final charge, I have a suggestion should a statue ever be erected to honor the individual most responsible for the resurgence of Downtown Durham, North Carolina.

Besides, we’ve already been memorialized (although I’m 25 pounds lighter now).  But we clearly stood on the shoulders of many others, including some with ties to Durham’s founding generation.

Having passed away earlier this year, this person was tiny and unassuming and yet a powerhouse of community activism.  She probably began in areas such as pioneering child-care for families with both parents who work.

When I arrived in Durham on a mission to jumpstart this community’s first official destination marketing organization in 1989, having helped start several others, I was under no illusion that I was coming to the rescue.

For any new DMO exec, the first order of business is research into what has been done to shape any sense of place that may remain.

Dating to its first, it was obvious generations here had shaped a community worth loving and worth visiting, but it was not without battle scares.

Asking around about who had been most passionate about Durham in the decades before my arrival led to audiences with a number of individuals.  It is a good way to learn what had worked and what hadn’t over the years.

None was more dynamic than Margaret Davis Haywood, then in her 70s.  Standing about 5’4” or so, she was unpretentious and humble but incredibly helpful and supportive.

She gave me clues on where I should start, which were echoed in meetings with George Watts Hill, Josephine Clement, Southgate Jones Jr., Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans and Elna Spaulding, all contemporaries of Mrs. Haywood who have also now passed on.

I wasn’t so brave as to expect an interview with these people but often the people I would contact for referral's would insist on paving the way.  Each not only knew first hand several generations of Durham natives back to the very first but had been an activist for Durham.

Margaret Haywood, I would learn from others, fed up with the failed policies of urban renewal, had helped instigate what I call a “sense of place revolt” while in her 50s.

It was an insurrection sparked in defense of the 1920s-era Carolina Theater, which in the early to mid-1970s had been targeted for demolition to create a parking lot by local officials.

The “sense of place revolt” she and cohorts inspired not only saved the cultural landmark, but forged an organization as guardian of other landmarks as well as an inventory of historic treasures by state officials throughout what we call the City Center District today.

As a result, this commercial district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the first in North Carolina so recognized.

Often it is those who raise the funds who get the credit—as they should—while co-conspirators in “sense of place revolts” such as Mrs. Haywood, are overlooked because they take a more strategic role.

The “sense of place revolt” led by Haywood and others raged for a decade, inspiring efforts by others to safeguard other ingredients and assets that make up Durham’s sense of place.

It inspired Duke student to rally in support of a historic black neighborhood and commercial district in the path of the Durham Freeway and formation of an alliance of neighborhoods and the banning billboards.

Others simultaneously worked with landowners and developers to establish a scenic overlay along Durham’s stretch of I-40 and push for signature landscaping around the co-owned airport.

It is through the unsung grit, determination and valor symbolized by Haywood that also a new breed of developer was inspired to begin adaptation of historic structures.

Two decades before their now idolized successors, they initiated the trend of converting these sense of place assets into restaurants, residences, stores and offices rather than just grumble about them being in the way.

A decade before Margaret’s “sense of place revolt” sparked what would become a complete renaissance of Downtown Durham over the next three decades, the New York Times had, in the wake of the tragic implosion of Old Penn Station in that community to make way for an nondescript office tower, penned:

“We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

That, too, spawned a “sense of place revolt” to preserve and adaptively use other landmarks there.

Margaret Haywood is proof that the self-less determination of just a few individuals can save a community’s distinct sense of place from forces that would otherwise homogenize it.

To use a phrase coined by one of my co-workers at the time I first met Mrs. Haywood, communities really can “fast forward without saying goodbye to yesterday.”

Today, Durham’s sense of place is at risk again, but this time from a another breed of developer, who was drawn to this sense of place, but now seems eager to pollute it with “franchise architecture,” and “formula developments” that drive up rents and hollow out the authenticity of its tenants.

All Margaret Haywood could focus on that day we first talked was the failure to save the historic Washington Duke Hotel from implosion a year or so after the revolt.

Opening in 1925 within a year of the Carolina Theater, the hotel had cost $1.8 million, seven times the cost of the theater and nearly $25 million in today’s dollars.

It was the finest hotel in the South at the time.

A mid-century annex is being restored today as one of several hotels around the CCB Plaza where the old Washington Duke once stood, including a 21c Museum Hotel and a boutique hotel called The Durham.

More than a decade later, people in Durham that December would recall to me its implosion with descriptions of clouds of debris flooding downtown streets similar to what we saw when terrorists brought down the Twin Towers in New York, but without the horrific human tragedy.

The implosion, even more than the demolition of Union Station here a few years earlier, galvanized some—but not all—Durham residents around sense of place.

And we would see on the heels of those initiatives I mentioned earlier incredible design incongruity of public facilities such as the Civic Center, Detention Center, Performing Arts Center, Transportation Center and Human Services Building.

I’m reminded by a friend that in the early 1970s, after a Southern business and development magazine labeled Durham a “hot dog” town, Haywood and some friends formed Pride Builders of Durham.

It was a precursor to a grass-roots successor we would forge two decades later as Durham Image Watch involving hundreds of resident volunteers who rallied to help Durham’s community destination marketing fulfill its role as guardian of image, identity and sense of place.

Business and university executives, as well as most politicians and executives of other types of economic development organizations are wary of standing up so overtly on behalf of a community, although most were very supportive when DCVB did.

There were always a few exceptions during my career.  Some would join with us when asked, balancing out a far bigger number who would duck for cover, and a few more trying to pull us back for fear of rocking the boat.

But residents of Durham both in public opinion polls and through personal involvement always wanted us to do more, especially those I mentioned above and none more than Margaret Haywood and her Pride Builders.

The implosion of the old hotel in 1975 spurred local officials a few months later to launch a consultant-led study of the feasibility of a new civic/convention center for the old hotel’s site.

But its location, when erected a little more than a decade later, would be hijacked when officials tore down another full block of historic buildings across the street instead to appease the developer of an office tower.

This island of incoherence remains an inspiration for those who today seem more pursuant instead of “franchise architecture” and corrosion of of sense of place, aided by some sworn or elected to defend it.

Today, thanks in part to the community marketing that gave it oxygen and awareness beginning in 1989, Durham is now recognized as one of the country’s “foodiest” towns, including perhaps even hot dogs.

But unless repeatedly called to task by citizen activists like Margaret Haywood, Durham often seems to take two steps forward only to inexplicably take one or two back when fostering the sense of place.

In her 80s by then and more than two decades after that “sense of place revolt,” Margaret was still rallying others to step forward, this time for a Museum of Durham History to memorialize Durham’s sense of place.

The struggle continues to keep Durham distinct, both in the economic importance of being different and its worthiness of love.

It may even require another “sense of place” revolt.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Looking Back To A Revealing Era of Common Sense

As if on cue each year, news reports in Durham, North Carolina will headline that the convention center here ran a deficit as if there shouldn’t be one or that this wasn’t expected when it was built.

A new book I recently finished inspired me to read back through each of three feasibility studies that were conducted between 1972 to 1982 for facilities of this type on behalf of each of the three different mid-sized cities in different parts of the country.

This was the first of my now concluded four decades in visitor-centered economic and cultural development during which I would represent these three cities.

It is a span when studies such as these seemed far better grounded and realistic than many before or since.

Last reported, the annual deficit for the civic/convention center in Durham, where I still live in retirement, was $104,000.  That is without netting out tax revenues generated from related visitor activity or even parking revenues.

If they had, it would cover that amount by more than double.

Leading up to construction of the facility, consultants warned the City based on a 1977 survey of convention centers in other cities in North Carolina, to expect a deficit of around $450,000 annually or about $1.8 million in today’s dollars.

The fact is, cultural infrastructure doesn’t “pay” for itself any more than roads or other types of infrastructure.  The only difference is that communities very rarely build roads that aren’t needed.

But in-depth research going back nearly a century reveals that local officials across the country have long been pushed by business interests to build stadiums, convention centers, and increasing over the last decade, performing arts centers.

Ostensibly this is for tourism-related purposes but the real motives have been to shore up the values of surrounding private property in downtowns.

From their own public records including private papers, it is clear this has most often been done, to paraphrase their words, as a means of “shoring up” downtown property values or “insulating” them from “erosion” in nearby neighborhoods.

Other ulterior motives were to act as “anchors” to facilitate private loans or as “people generators.”

If a cultural facility is ever reported to be breaking even, it is usually a sign that ancillary revenues are being included while costs related to capital and site preparation are conveniently not.Durham Convention Center

Feasibility consultants up through the 1970s, called convention centers by the name “civic” centers because they knew that “75% of the days in a year that the civic center is in use is for local meetings, dances, banquets, [expositions] etc.”

Even today scientific surveys of residents show that more experience a civic/convention center in a given year than any other cultural facility.

Eventually renaming them convention centers, this was said to appease a handful of meeting planners seeking ego gratification, but the real reason, along with pressure to increasingly overstate performance, was to rationalize using visitor taxes as a means to avoid public referendums.

Durham dodged a bullet when it waited ten years after that 1977 feasibility study to secure voter approval to build a civic/convention center, but still at the modest size that had been originally recommended.

Consultants could see back then that far more cost/benefit accrued to centers just 9% of the size of today’s behemoths and less than half the size of centers back then.

Even then, before it ever opened, the Durham Civic Center was situated so as to fulfill its role related to surrounding private property values.

Many other cities over the next two decades, would go on a “big game hunting” binge, doubling the amount of similar space across the nation, while convention and meeting tourism began a long, gradual decline.  The proportion using these facilities plummeted to just 8%, at tops 15%.

The same thing is happening now with performing arts centers with hundreds of new facilities opening in just the last decade while Americans attending concerts as a percentage of the U.S. population has remained flat at around 22% and even down in areas such as touring Broadway.

But based on the findings of urban policy-making researchers, nearly all of these cultural facilities fulfilled their primary “real estate” purpose before they ever opened, pimping tourism merely as a means to access funding without voter scrutiny.

Though undetected yet due to systemic changes in the convention/meeting/facilities landscape, we know know that convention/civic centers were destined to become unviable by the 1980s.

But based on performance surveys of convention centers in the mid-1970s, it was estimated that, on average, these facilities should expect to harvest up to 45% of the overall convention and meeting attendance in their communities.

The overall nationwide decline in convention and meeting demand was imperceptible and unfathomable in the 1970s,  But it would soon begin to show graphs as each dip in demand began to fall slightly lower than the last and each subsequent rise peaked short of the one prior.

It has continued with few exceptions over the past four decades, still undetected by those zooming in on too tight a focus.

Unaware, consultants in the mid-1970s, as they did for Durham, would often predict that a community’s “delegate count would not increase significantly without facilities provided by a civic center.”

This mantra would prove wrong as would a pervasive amnesia about the primary use of these facilities being local.

But what also wasn’t anticipated was the sudden explosion across the country in the number of major convention hotels across the nation (with at least 150 guest rooms and at least 5,000 square feet of meeting space.)

An even bigger surprise was how much more popular they would become nationally than civic/convention centers.

It was inconceivable to consultants in the late 1970s and early 1980s that the proportion of conventions interested in convention/civic centers as a venue would soon plummet rather than skyrocket as predicted.

It is the miscalculation that haunts many cities today where sense of place has been exchanged for things bright and shiny only to find their overall appeal diminished.

Using Durham as an example, forecasts in 1977 for Durham estimated only a slight increase in the number of guest rooms over the next few years and a leveling off during the remainder of the 1980s.

Instead, by the time Durham’s convention center and an adjacent private hotel opened, there were already 10 or more convention hotels across the community vying to harvest conventions and meetings drawn here.

By the time its center opened, Durham was already drawing a third more convention attendees overall than had been projected by the consultant.

With a community destination marketing organization then in place, within three years Durham, community-wide, was drawing more than three times that amount and would soon eclipse its fair market share of that segment of visitors.

But in part because under contract it was held hostage to the priorities of the adjacent hotel, which naturally limited its availability when more lucrative visitors were available, the convention center was harvesting only 8% of Durham’s convention attendees instead of the 46% projected.

Still, as the consultant had forecast in 1977, even the existence of a very modest civic/convention center can often serve a role in a community’s marketing appeal to meeting planners even though the events are ultimately held elsewhere in Durham.

Of course, this is a very expensive way to amplify marketing, but should be credited when considering operating deficits.

One elected official obsessing a decade ago about the center’s operating deficit quipped in a moment of frustration to a group looking at data showing the local tax revenue generated by visitors who attend conventions and meetings:

Why do we care about meetings held in other parts of town, we need to close that facility’s deficit!

A more strategic member of the group quickly reminded the group:

That this would be “fiscally cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.”

Another added to the chorus of nods around the room, “more like Hara-kiri.”

This would have robbed the city coffers of millions of dollars in revenue from conventions and meetings and undermined scores of businesses just for the sake of avoiding uninformed criticism.

It varies, but the convention/civic center in Durham generally harvests about 25% of Durham’s overall convention attendance.  While not the 45% projected in 1977, this is two to three times the proportion held in convention centers nationwide.

By the time I retired five years ago, the percentage of meetings using convention centers nationwide had dropped to between 8% and 15%, depending on the report, with nearly 90% of conventions and meetings now using convention hotels or other types of lodging with meeting facilities.

During the course of my career, the proportion using convention/civic centers fell by more than 80%, by nearly a quarter in the last few years alone while the communities I represented continued to grow and exceed market share for that visitor segment.

So it isn’t likely Durham’s facility can somehow buck that trend.

Another systemic change that has occurred since the late 1970s is the proportion of day-trip to overnight attendees going to conventions and meetings.

Even today, consultants will often project that as many as 75% of attendance at conventions and meetings held in convention/civic centers will be overnight.

But even when daytrip attendees who travel less than 50 miles are excluded (and they shouldn’t be), 41% of attendees are now “local.”   Fully a third of the attendance now at major national conventions comes from within each state where the meeting is held.

Overnight delegates aren’t quite half of attendees.

But as I retired in 2009, even in major convention destinations such as New York City, only 39% of the attendees at conventions and trade shows (not exhibitions) held in its 1.8 million square foot convention center were overnight visitors and more than a fifth were local residents.

Overnight delegates attending events in the 700,000 square foot convention center in Washington D.C. represented just 4% of the community’s total.

Even as long ago as 1993, as the newly opened civic center in Durham was finding its legs, consultants for the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, using historical data there, found only 45% of attendees to conventions were overnight visitors.

Still, other cities, including nearby Raleigh and Charlotte, tore down those facilities the Durham consultant found to be too large to be optimal in 1977 and erected new ones five times larger, the former out of envy for the latter according to an editorial there.

As I retired five years ago, the performance of Charlotte’s much larger center was barely measuring up to that much smaller predecessor, harvesting about what the other one did in 1991.

Cities that open huge convention centers such as these also find, if they are looking that is, that as a percentage of overall visitation they are drawing the same as cities with much more modest facilities such as Durham.

Even though it has a 3.2 million square foot (soon to be 3.7) convention center, Las Vegas draws the same proportion of its visitation to attend conventions that Durham does.

Its proportion of visitors attending conventions has been relatively unchanged through three expansions, even though 50-60% of delegates say they were more likely to attend because the convention was held there.

On top of the glacial decline in convention business nationwide, the migration of more and more to hotels and trends to lower proportions of overnight attendees, the massive oversupply of convention center space has caused these cities to shell out subsidies to secure business, adding to its deficits.

But conventions and meetings nationwide now have fallen below 9% of overall visitor person stays while the annual number of visitors being drawn to destinations such as Durham has been increased four-fold since the convention/civic center opened.

Shackled to mega-facilities, other cities are siphoning away marketing dollars that would bring a far greater return if redeployed to other visitor segments.

Durham will soon have 578 lodging guest rooms within walking`` distance of its micro-sized convention/civic center and another 145 nearby, nearly what it had back when the facility was first studied in 1977, but still fewer than what consultants had suggested would be spurred when the facility was built.

But Durham officials should question very seriously any future calls for a new or expanded center.  As it did in the 1980s, Durham should buck any effort to do so for ulterior motives such as propping up, insulating or anchoring real estate values.

The facility is doing just fine and outperforming the national average for proportion of convention attendance harvested by a convention center by nearly double.

Judging by market data and the lack of performance by larger facilities in other cities, it is highly unlikely that with more space it would be able to do any better than it is now and there are much less expensive ways to improve visitation.

Instead, officials are better advised to put the effort into better educating news outlets and the general public.

The ultimate return from cultural facilities, like that of other public infrastructure, is found strategically in a vibrant community not some narrow and arbitrary bottom line.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Featherweight Menace

A comprehensive survey of litter across America in 2008 published a year later showed an estimate, by weight, of 5 million tons.

But that metric is less and less relevant.  Litter simply weighs less today.

That’s also why it is so difficult to believe it has been reduced by 60% since 1969 when the push intensified nationwide to curb this form of blight, including billboards, a legalized form.

Plastic overall contributed nearly a fifth of the litter stream back in 2008 but because of the proliferation of plastic bags and other types of plastic film, the next survey may need to find another metric other than weight.

That report also signaled that surveys focused primarily on roadways are no longer enough.

Other forms of litter declined by anywhere from 74% to 88%, but plastic in the litter stream has jumped an incredible 165%.

An even greater amount is now blighting areas other than roadways.

These off-road parts of the litter stream include transition areas to roadways, loading docks, construction, recreation and retail areas, urban and rural streams and other waterways (as shown below off Fish Dam Road in Durham near a tributary flowing into a reservoir here used for drinking water down in Raleigh.)

In streams and waterways is where plastic bags have become especially ubiquitous, threatening drinking water and even our oceans where they “form large, swirling, glue-like collection zones” in “gyres” comprising as much as “40% of the planet’s ocean surface.”

Having no local government agency fully accountable, places such as Durham where I live, rely instead on volunteer clean up efforts along urban and rural waterways here.Fish Dam

But no amount of volunteer passion can work without agency capacity in the interim, just as no amount of capacity can make a difference without public servant passion.

Public education efforts fail because they aren’t targeted.  Some are fearful of the apparent links between littering as a behavior, lack of education, smoking, depression, obesity, parenting style, poverty and drug use because it may reflect poorly on various groups.

This may be why those involved in cleanup steadfastly refuse to involve forensics or law enforcement to trace origins of litter.

Plastic film such as plastic bags is as light as it is ubiquitous.

This volume-to-weight ratio undermines its inclusion in far more scalable curbside recycling because judging from Madison, Wisconsin, it takes a year or more to collect enough in communities the size of Durham to have a full truckload.

Retailers such as dry cleaners, grocers and general merchandisers, 18,000 outlets in all, now provide recycling barrels for plastic bags.  They can do this because they merely back-haul them in returning delivery trucks and then forward this critical mass to recyclers specializing in turning them back into more bags and film or decking.

Still, while accessible by 70% of Americans, it represents only 18% of recycled plastic film, with curbside another 3%, as of a report on 2012 released this year.  This is only part of the 141 million pounds of consumer-returned plastic bags and wraps returned for recycling.

If the free market was efficient, the cost of cleaning up the bags that are not recycled would be built into their per unit price to recompense businesses and government units overwhelmed by the problem.

But the market isn’t that efficient and billions of dollars in costs are passed off on other businesses and taxpayers.  Because policy-makers are so fearful of anti-tax groups, as is often happening now, the bags clog storm drains, water ways, blight neighborhoods, suppress property values and threaten public health and wildlife.

Anti-tax enthusiasts are essentially believers in the idea of a free-lunch, a dole for the free market.

They tie the hands of officials to clean this sh*t up, leaving the cost of what little removal is done added to the cost of doing business, which gets passed along as higher prices for goods and services, reduced property values and public health.

The question is can we afford these zealots?

Of course, these are the folks who rolled their eyes at the news recently that policy-makers in California have prohibited much of the 14 billion plastic bags handed out by retailers there each year by banning their use in grocery stores and large pharmacies by 2015 and convenience stores by 2016.

According to USA Today, it also allows grocers to charge 10 cents for paper and reusable bags and provided $2 million in loans to help manufactures shift to a new model.

The loans make sense based on a report this summer that paper bag recyclers are moving into the recycling of plastic film such as plastic shopping bags.

The approach of banning post-consumer use is patterned after the success of similar bans by cities and counties.

Nationwide, Americans go through 110 billion single-use plastic bags a year, about 60 per family for every four trips to the store.  It has only been since 1982 that grocery chains began the shift to plastic bags.

Now we use about 60,000 every five seconds, much of which makes it into the litter stream along roadsides and in streams and waterways.

There will be some equally negative—if less visible—trade-offs.  If paper bags make their way into landfills instead of being recycled, they create more harmful greenhouse gases, breaking down faster than plastic bags which break down slowly.

Banning sales or distribution of plastic poop bags to clean up after pets will mean an increase in the toxic wastes in parks, beaches, businesses and the yards of innocent homeowners, not to mention storm runoff and contaminated drinking supplies.

No, all poop isn’t equal when it comes to microbial load.  A recent study along beaches for example have found that 1 dog “fecal event” was equal to nearly 7,000 bird “fecal events,” the next largest animal source.

America’s 83.3 million dogs (not counting those running wild) generate an estimated more than 32,000 tons of waste a day, enough to fill 285,000 fully loaded tractor trailers.

Two or three days of droppings from a hundred dogs is enough to shut down watersheds within 20 miles to swimming.  That’s a hell of a lot of microbial load.

As long ago as 1978, researchers in Massachusetts found that dog feces alone were sufficient to account for devastating closures of shellfish beds there.

A single gram of dog poop can contain more than 23 million coliform bacteria.  Even if people choose to use their own yard as a sewer, in a place such as Durham where each acre receives between 1 and 1.5 million gallons of water each year, it becomes a matter of public health concern for the entire community.

But other than making plastic bags water soluble and toxin free, what other option is there than to restrict their use?  I know they exist because I had to order them one year when we lived in an apartment and my dearly departed English Bulldog, Toady, developed Alzheimer’s.

In a fair world, only the 10% of Americans (including 15% of Republicans, 8% of Independents and 6% of Democrats) whose rabid anti-tax-ness hollows out the capacity to deal with problems such as this would suffer from the diseases and complications brought on by their shortsightedness.

Only the 17% of Americans who litter would shoulder the costs of cleanup.  Only the 15% of Americans who never clean up after their dog would step in it or have it pollute their drinking water.

But the world isn’t fair, nor is the free market sufficient until such time that it comprehensively incorporates “full-cost” accounting.