BLUE GRASS, Va.—Many rural communities are desperately trying to revive economies that budget cuts and business scale-backs have flattened. We look to tourism.
This is not new. Pretty places with climate advantages have always attracted visitors. In recent years, we’ve looked deep into our souls to find something special about ourselves that people from elsewhere might want to see or do here.
Every town, dot and county -- 10,000 and counting -- now organize a festival about something local—fruit, wine, pickles, jumping frogs, cow chips, ethnic heritage or The Past. We promote agri-tourism and ecotourism, but mainly it’s about spendotourism.
Economists argue that wealth can’t be created by taking in each other’s washing. Hah, we say. If I spend a tourist dollar there and you spend a tourist dollar here, we both win. See?
Tourist dollars ebb and flow each year, but never disappear altogether. Rural economies see tourists as “found money,” even though a lot of local dollars and hours are invested before any tourist money is found.
This weekend and next
Highland County where I live celebrates sugar water. (www.highlandcounty.org/maple.htm
) We offer maple syrup in every form we have been able to imagine, the most popular being poured over buckwheat pancakes, glazed on hot donuts and mixed into barbeque sauces and mustards.
We claim maple for our festival because we are the southernmost county that produces syrup commercially. This is our 52nd Maple Festival, though we’ve been tapping trees for 250 years. On a pleasant weekend, we might draw 25,000 visitors, outnumbering residents by 10 to one.
Local civic groups raise most of their money each year selling food. Individual residents get in the game too by selling edibles and do-dads.
Since my wife, Melissa, and I have grown accustomed to paying federal income tax in April, it occurred to me that we might raise funds for this purpose while visitors are logy with all-they-have-eaten pancake breakfasts.
“We can sell stuff,” I said, “out front…by the road. Tourists buy anything—at least I do.”
“What do we have to sell?” Melissa asked. “Frostbitten toes, mud balls?”
Melissa has a practical streak that I need to guard against.
“Leave that to me. It’s a matter of presentation. Just be there.”
On Saturday morning, I set us up in the front yard. I figured a diversity of products and services would have the broadest commercial appeal. I made a big sign:
Not responsible for accidents—ours or yours
Beware of Sophie and Lucy (dirty dogs)
I piled our hay wagon with yard-sale items left over from our last yard sale…in 1984. Many had acquired a rich, grimy patina that sophisticated collectors value. I tripled all prices so that tourists wouldn’t think we were selling junk.
I had filled The Cheetah, our slow-footed, yellow farm truck, with 1,000 pounds of ripe horse apples that I’d cleaned out of the barn earlier. I figured they’d go like hotcakes. I stuck a sign on the windshield:
Blue Ribbon veggies come from Blue Ribbon horses
Sold by the ounce or truckload.
Worth more than gold, but a little cheaper.
I sat Melissa behind a card table. Her sign read:
Drive-in legal advice
“Quick and dirty opinions are usually good enough.”
Discounts given for innocence or cash
Melissa scribbled at the bottom: “I am here against my will.” She put a shopping bag over her head to add a little dignity to her field office.
My sign read:
Complex problems solved in minutes, or less
Words by the inch or pound
“One good word is worth a thousand bad pictures.”
Also, dancing lessons
Our first customer screeched to a stop in a souped-up 1988 Ford pickup with dual rear wheels, dual carburetors and dual engines. He was large, red-faced and unhappy. Flames were shooting out of his dual exhausts.
“Where’s the lawyer?” he demanded.
“Inside the bag,” I said. “She’s reviewing cases for a Supreme Court appeal.”
The man grumped over to Melissa. “I came over for pancakes and got a speeding ticket just now. Cop said I was doin’ 75 in a 25 zone. What can you do for me?”
“I’m the county attorney. I can’t represent you since I will be prosecuting you. I can recommend a defense attorney.”
“Naw, I’m my own lawyer. Look, this is what happened. I was driving along at about 20. One of them new Toyota Prybars passed me, going about 30. Then, all of a sudden, my gas pedal stuck down on the floor. I couldn’t stop. I stood on the brakes. That’s why I was going 75. It was that gas pedal.”
“Toyotas have an accelerator problem, not 20 year-old Fords,” Melissa said.
“No Sir, Ma’am, whatever. This stickin’ pedal is a virus. Everyone is catchin’ the Toyota flu just by breathin’ the same air. My Ford must have caught it when that Toyota passed me. Not many in the law-enforcement community know about this epidentist.”
“The prosecutor is always the last to know about these things,” Melissa said.
“Look, I want a flea bargain.”
“You know cut a deal. I have one or two priors, maybe a few I’ve forgotten. Like 17.”
“Well, you just come to court and tell your story to the judge. I’ll talk to the officer about a…flea bargain. And there’s no charge for my advice today.”
“I’m out of here,” Melissa said. “I need to count my bugs if I’m going to be swapping them.”
My venture into the tourist business cost me $37.55. I paid two teenagers $25 to haul off the Yard-Sale items, all of which tourists managed to resist. I gave away the horse apples. Then I bought Melissa a pancake breakfast so that she would start speaking to me again.
Several tourists had stopped by for my advice. One wanted directions out of the county. Another wanted to use our bathroom.
We earned no cash from the tourist trade, but I’m sure we incurred at least $3,000 in deductible expenses as we pursued taxable income.
Next year, I’ll skip the horse apples and go directly into maple-flavored sourballs.
I’m also hopeful that we can turn Melissa’s legal assets into a new profit center.
I anticipate hard bargaining on that point. She’s less enthusiastic about fleecing tourists than I am. She says she’s giving me a washboard for my birthday.
Curtis Seltzer is a land consultant who works with buyers and helps sellers develop marketing plans. He is author of
How To Be a DIRT-SMART Buyer of Country Property, available at www.curtis-seltzer.com
where his columns are posted. He also writes weekly for www.LandThink.com
and does commentary for Virginia public radio.