The evolving role of tourism

Published 8:46 pm Tuesday, November 8, 2016

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The Smithfield and Isle of Wight Convention and Visitors Bureau, better known as Tourism, has done an impressive job of marketing Smithfield to points far and near in recent years.

A pretty steady stream of visitors, particularly on weekends, is clear evidence that the community has benefited from the marketing effort both of the local agency and of Smithfield Foods, which has carried the town’s name to heights unimaginable a couple of decades ago.

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As tourism has grown, it has also evolved.

Early efforts to promote Smithfield began with the fundamentals. Develop a message about the community, then repeat it long and often to a target audience via a variety of methods. And that primary function has been extraordinarily successful.

In recent years, Tourism’s efforts have grown to include not only general marketing, but also the production of major vendor events in the Historic District, and promotion of numerous bicycle and other road events throughout the year. And as the number of events has grown, so has competition for favorable dates on which to schedule them, as well as some understandable grumbling over closed streets, blocked driveways and general inconvenience.

Cheryl Ketchum, hired by the county a couple of years ago to manage the popular farmers market, has done an exceptional job of expanding that weekly event as well as creating bigger government supported “Vintage” and “Christmas” markets that rely on closing Main Street.

In an effort to conduct those markets on what they considered the most advantageous days, Ms. Ketchum, Tourism Director Judy Winslow and a group known as the town “Events Committee” scheduled the Vintage Market on top of “Souper Saturday” this year, prompting the Christian Outreach Project to move that event to another week. The activities committee also moved the town’s popular Christmas parade from the parade’s traditional second Saturday in December so that the Christmas vendors’ market could enjoy peak seasonal sales on that favored Saturday.

Tourism Director Winslow says the Historic District’s major event schedule is pretty well saturated with major events. There’s been no recent discussion by the elected Town Council as to the number of major events, the increase in such events may be at or near an end.

This would seem to be a good time for the town to take stock of Tourism’s mission. Which part of Tourism’s role is most beneficial year in and year out for local business, is most compatible with the town’s image, and best fits what residents of the district want?

Ms. Ketchum inelegantly, and, we prefer to hope, inadvertently, chastised anyone living within the Historic District who might grumble about the bigger and more disruptive events she has so expertly devised.

“You have to take all that in consideration” when you move to somewhere like Smithfield, she said.

Well, to provide a bit of history, most of the people who live within the Historic District were doing so since well before the major street vendor events came along.

In fact, many of the people responsible for preserving the Historic District and thus giving Tourism the product that it markets so well, moved here in the 1970s and 1980s. They fell in love with a quiet and quaint little colonial seaport that was in bad need of a facelift. They brought with them their vision, their energy and whatever financial resources they had. They purchased houses that were showing their age and restored them.

The Powells, the Moores, the Hineses, the Faces, the Goldmans, the Earls and many more families devoted years of effort, often including their own sweat equity, to make the Historic District the charming place that visitors find so appealing today.

They, and residents who have succeeded them, do not live in the district because they particularly enjoy having 10,000 or more visitors choking the town’s limited parking on a weekend. They live in the district because they love the small town flavor, and their living here makes the whole thing work.

To be a part of the district, its residents tolerate much, but what they tolerate can, at some point, become intolerable. Neither the Town Council nor Tourism should forget that.