Opinion

Our region is getting serious about the business of having fun

There were plenty of watermelons available at the Turlock Certified Farmers Market at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds. Farm-to-fork marketing could more tourists to the region for an up-close food experience.
There were plenty of watermelons available at the Turlock Certified Farmers Market at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds. Farm-to-fork marketing could more tourists to the region for an up-close food experience. aalfaro@modbee.com

In Stanislaus County, the landscape is changing.

Rural areas once inhabited only by trees and visited only by their growers and harvesters are now frequented by everyday folks – people who want to be closer to their food. So close, in fact, that they can interrupt the food chain to pluck what they eat straight from the earth.

“Farm-to-table” is now a do-it-yourself experience.

Urban areas are transforming empty commercial spaces that once housed department stores into multi-use gathering spots with coffee shops, tech hubs, gift shops and hotels – brimming with locally sourced items. Boutique distilleries with posh tasting rooms can be found in industrial parks on the outskirts of town and craft beer makers are becoming destination spots.

We’re using space differently. Newly ordained “Opportunity Zones” are places where incentivization can bolster imagination. Smart planning can lead to a future of local job creation and economic growth. So, how does tourism play into this changing landscape?

Tourism is one of California’s the most lucrative “export-oriented” industries. During 2016, visitors to California contributed $126.3 billion to the economy with Stanislaus County seeing roughly $41.3 million due to tourism.

During the economic downturn, direct travel spending decreased by 3.9 percent. But a happy accident occurred. The “staycation” phenomenon. In-state travel surged as travelers focused on local destinations, avoiding airfares and finding new leisure activities nearby. We Californians continue to be the mainstay of the state’s travel and tourism industry. Nearly $135 million was spent in 2016 by Stanislaus County visitors on day travel.

With almost 600,000 people living in Stanislaus County and 4 million within a 50-mile radius, it’s time to amplify what there is to see and do where we live. It’s time to sell our community.

We have no famous mouse, landmark bridge, or awe-inspiring mountains. But we do have a thriving arts scene, classic car culture, farm-fresh cuisine, the largest privately-owned winery worldwide and an Americana experience that could captivate millions of tourists simply driving through week in and week out. We just have to find the best ways to tell them about it.

It’s time we appeal to those who visit for a conference but then leave. We should lure them into staying, eating, drinking, taking in a show. But how? And whose job is that anyway?

Enter the Regional Tourism Roundtable. The County convened a tourism focused group 20 years ago, in 1998. This effort included all nine Stanislaus County cities, chambers of commerce and key tourism businesses. We talked about all things tourism and focused on how we could leverage funds, tell our stories and promote our region collaboratively. When the economy took a hit, this meant all of us had to take a hard look at priorities. We were forced to refocus on core missions.

We asked the board of supervisors to reconsider the investment in regional tourism. This week we officially reboot our Regional Tourism Roundtable. We have selected a small, but representative group of partners to our first convening. The discussion will provide us with insight on how to begin leveraging the power of local “fun makers.” Our hope is the Regional Tourism Roundtable can promote our beautiful communities and all we have to offer to a traveler or tourist.

Telling our stories and working together to promote our region is one hell of an idea.

Keith Boggs is assistant Executive Officer of Stanislaus County

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