OXFORD – Most rural communities can’t attract tourists with mountains, oceans and big-city lights, but some visitors are drawn to small towns by their very lack of “touristiness” – their authenticity.
Such attractions can center on local history and lore, food specialties, arts and even the enthusiasm of locals for playing high-tech hide-and-seek.
Scores of tourism promoters and community developers were in Oxford for three days this week for the Alabama-Mississippi Rural Tourism Conference, sharing ways to enhance and market their communities.
Subjects included the importance of photography and Internet usage in marketing tourism, the increasing popularity of “geocaching,” in which people search for hidden objects using global positioning systems technology and the importance of community attractiveness.
While nearly all visitors seek places to eat, a growing number of tourists are seeking out local and regional food specialties, said John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Association.
“When people come to Mississippi and Alabama, people want to eat catfish, fried okra, barbecue – in the summer, a plate full of vegetables,” he said. “When you think of the South, you think of a troubled history, but what comes out of that history is music, food, literature – black, white; rich, poor.”
That uniqueness also includes things like the Mississippi Delta’s tamales, Nashville’s stewed raisins and barbecue that varies not just state to state but county to county.
It also extends, Edge said, to eateries of many stripes that work with local farmers to feature local produce, meats, dairy products and other ingredients.
With ingredients like a major river, Hernando DeSoto, King Cotton, antebellum mansions, the Civil War, Civil Rights and prominent natives, it’s no wonder that Columbus has capitalized on its history.
The community attracts visitors with thrice-annual home tours, a reenactment of the city’s claim to America’s first Memorial Day and celebrations of its African-American heritage.
The city is not resting on its best-known history, though. Thousands of scholars, genealogists and history buffs do research each year at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, the Lowndes County Courthouse and other original sources.
Since 1991, students at the Mississippi School for Math and Science have added to that research with their “Tales from the Crypt” project. They document the lives of people buried in Friendship Cemetery, often uncovering previously unknown connections, and then write scripts, several of which are performed during Spring Pilgrimage Week.
“We like to look at the intersections of gender, race and class,” said MSMS history teacher Chuck Yarborough, who directs the project.
“I get the sense … that folks know what is vaguely true and what is way off the truth, and they want complexity,” he added. “They want honesty; they want acknowledgment that we have a troubled history.”
“Towns can preserve their heritage and make money by telling their story in plays,” said Vaughn Grisham, director emeritus of the McLean Center for Community Development.
“In Miller County, Ga., they went to the historical society and trained people to collect stories. They took all the stories and turned them over to Joe Carson, a playwright, who turned them into plays.”
“Swamp Gravy” was the germ of transformation for Colquitt, a town of 1,869.
“They took an old cotton warehouse; the people rolled up their sleeves and created a theater in there. Starting with a budget of $2,500, their budget rolled up to $2.5 million a year from this.”
Grisham said what the sometimes poignant, sometimes gritty “Swamp Gravy” plays have done for Colquitt goes beyond economics. More than 2,000 of the county’s 6,000 residents have volunteered in the twice-yearly effort, healing some of the community’s rifts in the process.
“One of the things they’ve done is to pull together people,” Grisham said. “These are great plays; they deal with tough subjects.”
Grisham said much of what any community can do to attract visitors will have the dual effect of improving life for current residents.
In his second home of Bakersville, N.C., residents built a Creek Walk that is now home to several festivals each year – each of which brings tourists and helps support the homegrown crafts industry that now brings $75 million annually into western North Carolina.
“The first thing every successful community does is to make itself look attractive. Every community needs to look loved,” he said.
Colquitt, he noted, added both beauty and meaning to plain-Jane buildings with murals over several years. As a result, the tiny town this very week is hosting the Global Mural Conference.
Grisham said the key to community transformation is people willing to improve themselves.
“Find people who care about your community and want to make a personal commitment to it,” he said. “When you start, start small; take on something doable.”
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal