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Downtown and economic development conferences provide opportunities for community leaders, small business owners, entrepreneurs, and the public sector to network and brainstorm.

Tourism and what it means as part of an overall economic development strategy is always a key topic. Interestingly, no one asks the fundamental question: Is tourism right for our community?

Yes, tourism may be the answer to economic development, jobs, and a better quality of life. It can enhance a town’s sense of place and keep it from becoming just another desolate spot filled with empty storefronts and abandoned homes. But is it right for your community? Maybe.

Photo: Cburnett on Wikimedia Commons

One example I’ve heard many times to illustrate focus and implementing a dream is the story of Walt Disney and Anaheim. When Disney wanted to build Disneyland, he met with tremendous resistance from local resident groups. He was not deterred and, ultimately, his dream became reality. Today, the Disneyland Resort complex employs 20,000 and more than 18 million people visit Anaheim each year.

Some look at this as an accomplishment based upon determination and vision, others see it as one man coming into a community and changing everything. An excellent example of what focus can achieve, but a failure at preserving sense of place, enhancing quality of life or sustaining a sense of community.

Resort developments bring jobs and much-needed revenue at a cost. For many towns, the price is too high and results in residents who are driven away because they can no longer afford to live in their community. This dramatically alters the resident demographics and the area’s inherent character – its sense of place. Developers are successful, the tax base increases, jobs are created and this is good. The deeper questions are: how much of the money is actually staying in the community? How many of the people working at those new jobs can still afford to live in the community?

The answers are different for every town. those who have successfully integrated tourism development into the fabric of their community usually approached the process as a collaborative endeavor. They took the time to have the tough conversations and debate the alternatives. They were willing to say “no” or “let’s take this slowly” when ideas seemed at odds with their community’s vision and character.

Tourism as an economic development tool is powerful, but it’s not without challenges and trade-offs. Considering the impacts on all aspects of a community’s quality of life and making deliberate decisions are critical for success. Communities who are swept away by the allure of tourism dollars without having a plan or taking control may find themselves facing unanticipated outcomes.