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The Mt. Rushmore connection
Guest Column
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My only personal reference to Mount Rushmore was a background to Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and an American icon. But after my three-year involvement with “tourism,” both from Historic Camden’s perspective, as well as city/county “tourism initiatives,” when I toured Mount Rushmore last week the answer to “Why Mount Rushmore?” was startling. I naively assumed this National Monument was created as a tribute to presidents and homage to our nation and that Mount Rushmore was the ideal location. But that’s not the core reason. Surprisingly, the answer was simply, “tourism.”

In 1923, a 66-year-old man, Doane Robinson, looked for a way to boost the local economy of the Black Hills of South Dakota, specifically through tourism. By leveraging what South Dakota had (mountains), the idea for a massive sculpture was germinated. The original idea was to be a sculpture of western heroes (Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud, John C. Freemont). Robertson felt it would be a spectacular attraction and draw thousands of tourists to the area.

The idea caught the imagination of North Dakota U.S. Senator Peter Norbeck, but not everyone was as enthusiastic. The enduring universal responses to visionary ideas were all dusted off and used: “too expensive,” “not practical,” “too hard to fund to expect a return.” But when sculptor Gutzon Borglum (an established sculptor of large scale outdoor monuments) was invited to evaluate the preliminary concept and conduct a site visit, the focus changed to creating images the world would immediately recognize and, rather than the proposed location along the scenic Needles Highway, Mount Rushmore was more suitable for what Borglum had in mind. The combination of a entrepreneurial thinker, an elected representative to secure governmental funding and an experienced artist with a proven track record, created an enduring American icon and, true to its initial core mission, created the chief economy of the region: tourism. Robertson's dream of “thousands of visitors a year” eventually resulted into today’s 3 million annual tourist visits.

Keystone and Custer, South Dakota, are two adjacent “tourist towns.” In comparison to our downtown, there were no empty storefronts in either town. Specialty stores and a multitude of restaurants that would otherwise be absent in a small town were supported by tourist dollars but available for local residents to enjoy. At a local grocery store, our cashier told me that on a busy day the small supermarket could clear $60,000. One day, $60,000. Tourism was clearly The Economy of the area. A vast and varied array of tourism-related businesses have flourished in these small towns. And the residents prosper. All because of tourism and the collaborative leadership process that started the process.

On our drive back to Denver, we went out of our way to visit Alliance, Nebraska. Alliance is not the type of place that would ordinarily attract tourism. The town itself was dumpy, but we bought T-shirts, ate at a good Mexican restaurant, and visited a drug store. All because of Carhenge. You see, Alliance has no mountains or spectacular natural features. Alliance has no particular historical significance or any traditional tourist attractions. They have land as flat as you might imagine Nebraska to be. But Alliance does have junked cars and a few creative souls who recreated Stonehenge with derelict cars painted gray. To be sure, this is not a Mount Rushmore-esque attraction. However, the small parking lot kept a steady out-of-state-plates car traffic flow. This is not a “destination” tourist attraction, but rather a “waypoint” attraction. This was also a free attraction (donations accepted -- and given by us!). While technically “free,” Mt. Rushmore charges a parking fee and offers no viable parking alternative.

Finally, there is something else Alliance, Neb., now has that it didn’t have two weeks ago… about $100 I brought all the way from South Carolina to leave with citizens of Alliance! The Carhenge site employs local high school students to run a gift shop and a snack bar -- and returns a profit to the artist/owner. And while we ate at a nice Mexican Restaurant, we never would drive out of our way to Alliance to eat there. But in terms of profit, the Mexican restaurant cleared more of a profit than the attraction that drew us to Alliance. All because of Carhenge.

From the breathtaking to the bizarre -- the outstanding to the outlandish -- when a community takes what is unique and different, connects with supportive government, economic opportunities for creative and hard working citizens results in tourism that will supplement or drive a local economy. Tourism is the No. 1 industry in the nation and in South Carolina.

Camden’s unique and nationally important history; extensive equine industry; singular sporting resources (motorsports, the likes of which are only found in a dozen places nationally, and a world class sporting clay champion and resource); a virtually untapped river ecosystem; and, most recently, a phenomenally different and unique firearms museum, all contribute to potential core tourist attractions. We are also strategically positioned to be an outstanding waypoint for interstate highway travelers and one day, with savvy tourism infrastructure investment, we could become a destination tourism location.

I learned in Marketing 101 you should always try to sell “unique.” If not unique, it should be the “best.” And if it’s not something that is unique, or the best, create something that is (e.g., Carhenge). Before investing in generic tourism attractions that are established in multiple regional locations, forcing competition with established brands, we need to identify all potential tourism venues and determine which might generate maximum return on investment.

We are fortunate in Camden because we have unique attractions or attractions unique to our geographic area. Existing hospitality tax provides ready financial resources for serious tourism development. The majority of city council understands the fact that tourism is an industry that can be jump started by governmental financial support to create opportunities that can be exploited not for the benefit of the few, but as a means to create and sustain downtown businesses and provide jobs for Camden’s citizens in the hospitality industry.

I encourage our elected representatives to invest in tourism experts with proven track records, solicit input from creative and entrepreneurial citizens and align with local businesses to boost economic opportunities. There is no absolute formula for success because of multiple variables, but if we don’t put all our eggs in one basket and ensure the use of hospitality tax is diverse and varied we can anticipate some investments will be better than others. Investing our hospitality taxes in a way that allows for measured results will create a process that allows for smarter and even more productive future investments.

The absolute cost of procuring the leadership expertise should not be the deciding or limiting factor. Because the ultimate measure of success will be determined on the long-term return on investment, emphasis should be on results produced. To date, our tourism personnel investments have not appeared to produce much of a return. I’d rather pay 50 cents and get a dollar than spend a nickel and wonder if I got any return at all. A number of high priced, high return investments, conforming to the overall budget, are desirable if they get us to where we want to go faster.

At present, the way hospitality taxes are spent by the city is akin to a pile of money that is picked apart by circling buzzards. And as chairman of the Historic Camden Foundation, I’m proud to be a buzzard. If there is money available, we will go after it. However, I recognize that the best long-term use of hospitality tax revenue should not be used as a crutch for organizations, but rather on investments that will reap increased tourism traffic and dollars. Strategic investments with the end goal of increasing revenue from tourism should be the focus. And if it takes a substantial upfront investment, that is ultimately money very well spent. When you buy stocks, the price of the stock might limit the number of shares you can afford, but if a high priced stock will produce the best return for your investment goals, you buy it.

As tourism development initiatives are forthcoming, our mayor has requested public input and engagement, as any participatory government should function. I hope we all will encourage and support this rare and fortunate opportunity to help all of us citizens and our local economy, not just a handful of insiders. As with any endeavor, we are limited by time, energy and money. I trust our elected representatives will focus their time and energy, and our tax dollars, strategically and wisely.