NORWOOD — Nine central North Carolina counties could join forces and adopt a regional identity to become an outdoors tourism powerhouse, an Asheville marketing consultant told local officials Wednesday.
Magellan Strategy Group President Chris Cavanaugh presented the results of a regional tourism study to leaders from the nine Uwharrie and Pee Dee area counties, an initiative led by the city of Rockingham, which secured a $25,000 state grant to help fund the research.
“There’s this huge pool of people who are interested in coming here, but just need to be invited,” Cavanaugh said. “They need to be more informed about this area.”
The Uwharrie Pee Dee Lakes Regional Tourism Development study encompasses Richmond, Anson, Moore, Montgomery, Rowan, Stanly, Randolph, Davie and Davidson counties, linking attractions including the North Carolina Zoo and Uwharrie National Forest to a network of campgrounds, nature preserves, waterways, museums and other sites.
“There are 5 million people living in within an hour and a half drive of the Uwharrie region,” said Rockingham Mayor Steve Morris. “Tourism is one of the biggest industries in the world. We want a bigger piece of that pie.”
Stakeholders will review and digest the study before deciding whether to form a nonprofit regional tourism authority, which would be eligible for state and federal grants and would likely seek support from local governments in the member counties.
Wednesday’s meeting presenting the study was held in a hunting lodge at The Fork Farm and Stables, an equestrian ranch with a bed-and-breakfast, waterfowl game lands and sporting clay shooting ranges south of Norwood in rural Stanly County.
Morris and Rockingham City Manager Monty Crump were in attendance, along with Katie Rohleder, director of Discovery Place Kids-Rockingham, state Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson, and officials from each of the nine counties in the proposed tourism region.
Tourism spending ranges widely in the nine-county region, with Moore County taking in $438.9 million in 2014 visitor expenditures on the high end of the scale and Anson County seeing just under $17 million on the low end. Davidson, Randolph and Rowan broke the $100 million mark while Richmond took in $44.9 million and Montgomery reported $26.5 million.
Boosters said both the small rural counties not currently known as tourist destinations and bigger players like Randolph, home to the N.C. Zoo, and Moore, which boasts world-class golf at the Pinehurst Resort, would benefit from a regional tourism strategy.
“I truly, truly believe a rising tide floats all boats,” said Jayne Scarborough, executive director of South Carolina’s Olde English District Tourism Commission. “For a rural area, you really are stronger when you don’t look at county lines and when you work together, your product is more impressive.”
Each of the nine counties has seen tourism grow more than 100 percent in the past 25 years, with Moore leading the pack at 273 percent, Randolph at 207 percent, Rowan at 200 percent, Davidson at 194 percent, Stanly at 193 percent, Anson at 161 percent, Montgomery at 152 percent, Richmond at 151 percent and Davie at 117 percent.
Moore County surpassed $1.6 million in hotel occupancy tax revenue in 2014, leading all nine counties. Randolph topped three-quarters of a million while Richmond took in $315,001, Anson earned $33,496 and Montgomery garnered $27,951.
Cavanaugh’s study listed the top regional strengths as scenic natural beauty and outdoor recreation opportunities, agritourism, iconic attractions, festivals and events, significant historical and cultural sites, sports facilities and the Uwharrie-Pee Dee’s central location and easy accessibility.
Weaknesses included a lack of destination marketing and financial support, the fragile local economic recovery and the presence of three prosperity zones — a mix of Tier 1, 2 and 3 counties.
The region excels, Cavanaugh said, in recognition of the Uwharrie name and location, though few current visitors would associate all nine counties with the mountains and national forest.
A survey of Charlotte, Triangle and Triad-area residents showed 77 percent were familiar with the Uwharrie region, trailing Boone-Blowing Rock with 97 percent name recognition but topping the Yadkin Valley at 74 percent and Lake Lure at 73 percent.
“There’s awareness out there,” said Cavanaugh. “People already know about this area, and they’re saying great things about you.”
BUILDING A BRAND
Presenters pitched an advertising and marketing campaign aimed at millennials and young families in the Interstate 85 urban corridor. The region could offer thematic itineraries, such as ready-made driving tours of golf courses, canoe and kayak sites, farms and wineries, vineyards and breweries.
“Ultimately, we need to be thinking about how to position the region for the future,” Cavanaugh explained, “and as Wayne Gretzky once said, skate to where the puck will be, not where it is now.”
Carl Wilgus, president and CEO of the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau in Pennsylvania, said his four-county region faced similar challenges when it first began regional tourism efforts. Eventually, he said, communities bought in and the branding caught on.
“Advertising works,” Wilgus said. “When I got there, new to the area, I saw nothing to suggest this was going to be a honeymoon destination.”
Promotion of the Poconos’ romantic ski chalets complete with heart-shaped hot tubs led Life magazine to declare the region “Honeymoon Capital of the World” in the 1970s.
Scarborough, whose Olde English District includes Chesterfield, Lancaster, Kershaw, Fairfield, Chester, Union and York counties in South Carolina, said the Palmetto State has 11 regional tourism bodies that each receive state funding as well as support from member communities.
“Most of our area is rural,” she said. “As a regional organization, we are able to do more things for our partners that they wouldn’t be able to do on their own.”
Niche marketing opportunities could include brochures targeting special interests and outreach to travel writers, with ideas for feature stories on the region’s outdoor attractions.
If organizers can identify a theme that would appeal to urbanites in New York and Los Angeles or outdoorsmen in Europe, Scarborough said, a regional group could advertise the Uwharrie-Pee Dee Lakes area to targeted areas nationwide and worldwide.
“International marketing is extremely expensive,” she said. “We can’t afford to do it on our own (as counties). If it’s a place like the Uwharries, with all the outdoor recreation, it could be primed for German tourists.”
Any regional campaign should adopt an aggressive digital marketing strategy, presenters said, with a website and social media accounts updated frequently.
Stakeholders discussed whether to form a new regional tourism group or consolidate the effort under the umbrella of Central Park NC, an economic development group encompassing Anson, Davidson, Montgomery, Moore, Randolph, Richmond, Rowan and Stanly counties.
The Central Park group manages the Starworks Center for Creative Enterprises, a 187,000 square-foot former mill being converted into a business incubator for potters and artisans. Crump, a member of Central Park’s board of directors, said that group doesn’t have the resources to take on regional tourism in addition to its marquee Starworks project.
Mark Shore, director of tourism marketing for the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, said the Uwharries group could apply for a U.S. Park Service grant if it incorporates as a nonprofit organization. The grant program begins accepting applications in June.
A new nonprofit would “make sure that all of the partners stay engaged,” said Scarborough. She recommended forming an organization with paid staff leadership because a loose consortium of counties held together by individual volunteers could easily lose momentum.
“I really think an executive director would help you all get committed funding for an extended period of time,” she said.
Stakeholders decided to allow more time for review of the study, its implications and its recommendations before setting another meeting to discuss forming the tourism body.
“We want to plant the seeds to grow a new crop of tourists who will come to know and love our region,” Morris said.
Reach Editor Corey Friedman at 910-817-2670 and follow him on Twitter @corey_friedman.