[Above: Rural Missouri. Photo: Jason Rust www.OzarksAerialPhotography.
The Key to Rural Geotourism: The Right Person
It only takes one spark to light a fire, and in this case the spark was Elaine Parny. She and her French husband own a small restaurant, La Galette Berrichonne, in the town of Fordland, Missouri (Pop. 800). And it offers savory French cuisine! In January 2015, Elaine contacted me to see if our university class could develop something for the town of Fordland.
Missouri State University, where I teach, offered the first degree in Geography Geotourism in the world, designed with input from Jonathan Tourtellot, originator of the geotourism concept introduced via the National Geographic Society. We looked at the courses that we wanted students to take, courses that would help them evaluate destinations based on geotourism concepts.
When we got to the end of the core courses, we realized that somewhere, somehow, there had to be a practical application of all that they had learned, so the senior Practicum in Geotourism was born. MSU has a mandate from the State of Missouri to incorporate Public Affairs as part of the curriculum in all of our classes, and so it was easy to look at the communities around MSU’s hometown of Springfield and challenge the class to create a tourism strategy.
Often community development and design strategies are those that a consultant “thinks” would work for a community, usually based on statistics and theory. Many of those projects never materialize because no one from the community comes forward to be the catalyst for change. But when it does happen, when there is someone passionate about tourism and change, that person can make a project unbelievably exciting.
That was Elaine.
After a site inspection and some research, we realized that the town of Fordland was too small and lacked sufficient assets to develop a plan. But Elaine was persistent. She told us about the “East Route 60 Tourism Group” that she had started. It consisted of businesses and individuals interested in developing tourism along a stretch of U.S. Route 60 east of Springfield. We decided to take on the project.
A Class Project Gets Real
Knowing that there was not a lot of money for development, we used the basic parameters of a National Geographic Geotourism MapGuide project, amended to reflect the region. Practicum students traveled to all of the communities along the route, interviewed business owners, local government officials, community leaders, and local historians. All of the students had geospatial courses, so designing the map was not difficult.
As the students started evaluating the region for tourism potential, it became clear that this was an area of undiscovered rural tourism assets. A number of interesting facts emerged: a farm to table operation in Norwich, a reconstructed pioneer village near Mansfield, the site of the first grocery store by Sam Walton’s grandfather, the home of the inventor of the Hubbell telescope, an Amish farm market, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum, canoe operators and float trips down the curving Gasconade River, and, of course, a flavorful French restaurant with a menu featuring local ingredients. Just the kind of experiences that would appeal to harried city dwellers seeking a break in the country.
In May of 2015, the class and I presented “Home Grown Highway” in Fordland with representatives from all of the communities involved. It covered six towns and villages across Webster and Wright counties. Normally, this is where the practicum ends and MSU ends participation. But Elaine wasn’t done with us yet.
Building a Tourism Community
Her enthusiasm hadn’t flagged. She asked if we could present the program in the other five communities along the route. In the summer of 2015 Elaine and I, accompanied by other supporters, did just that.
Speaking at these community-visioning meetings, we realized that we needed to involve more people and bring in some experts to reach out to all of the stakeholders. In January of 2016, we hosted a one-day workshop on the MSU campus. Speakers came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Economic Development Office in Missouri, the Missouri Department of Tourism, the MMGY Global Tourism Marketing company, and the Missouri Highway Department.
One of the points that came out of this workshop was that regional cooperation would provide more funding opportunities than limiting our activities to the Home Grown Highway communities. The Spring Geotourism Class of 2016 took on the challenge of creating a Destination Management Organization out of the two counties in order to find financial assistance.
The class was off again: interviewing residents and city officials, searching out tourism opportunities, and recommending changes. By the end of the semester, a third county, Douglas, was added to complement the original two.
In May of 2016, we held another presentation in Fordland. This time the students presented a complete plan for the formation of the DMO along with recommendations for an office location, name, logo and estimated first year expenses.
But was Elaine done with us yet? Nope.
She enlisted a friend of hers, Tylene Boley, to act as a volunteer Executive Director of the DMO. Tylene started meeting with individuals in all of the communities and putting together all of the legal paperwork necessary. Meetings were held, by-laws passed, officers elected, and suddenly the Ozarks South Central Tourism DMO came into being.
The three counties of Webster, Wright, and Douglas now had a voice advocating the joys of rural tourism.
And Elaine was pleased.
Here’s the takeaway for any rural region: Grassroots Geotourism works when the community is willing to put forth the effort needed, to find volunteers that will fill the gaps, to persevere when it seems that their project is too small or too obscure. Rural areas of many countries in the world offer that return to a more basic communal time that urban dwellers find lacking. Cooperating with other communities and seeing the potential in existing assets is the key. But Grassroots Geotourism will not work without that special someone who cares about the community and is able to spearhead change. So take the time to search and find your own Elaine.—L.I.