Realizing that tourism is a vital part of a community's economic development, the Alabama-Mississippi Rural Tourism Conference is a collaborative effort focused on assisting smaller communities in bolstering tourism. The annual conference is hosted alternately between Alabama and Mississippi. This year's conference was held recently in Florence, Ala.
"The more communities understand the importance that rural tourism has to local and county economics and the state economy, the better," says Joe Sumners, director of the Economic and Community Development Institute at Auburn University.
Tom Chesnutt leads Alabama Extension's tourism efforts. He is a leader in agriculture and rural tourism in Alabama and is involved in almost every tourism organization in the state. He is one of the creators of the Alabama-Mississippi Rural Tourism Conference. He and his Extension counterpart Robert Walker from Mississippi State University met with a group of tourism entities to create a conference plan. The first conference was held at Lake Tiak-O-Khata in Louisville, Miss., in 2001. About 50 people attended. With one exception, the conference has alternated between Alabama and Mississippi each year since. This year, more than 100 people attended.
"Through the years, we have made a conscious effort to move the conference around and hold it in a different location each year," says Chesnutt.
"The Alabama–Mississippi Rural Tourism Conference was successful in validating that tourism is a driving force for economic development in rural areas and providing the tools that will enable participants to put tourism to work in their particular communities," Chesnutt adds.
Robert Ratliff, CEO of Ratliff and Associates in Tuscaloosa and former director of the Tuscaloosa Convention and Visitors Bureau, also says the conference fills needs that are not being met by larger tourism conferences.
"This conference is affordable, so smaller rural communities can send more people. The speakers are always good, and they provide a lot of valuable information that attendees can take back to use in their towns and communities. You can't beat the value," says Ratliff.
Ratliff says one specific takeaway that attendees have put into use from the conference is social networking. "Getting chambers, councils and towns socially involved on the Internet and sharing their communities through social media has really grown in the last decade." He calls it educational media because using Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets helps educate people about small rural communities and is also a drawing card for tourists.
Through the years, Extension has helped Ratliff a lot in his business. When he first got into tourism, he went to a tourism conference to promote Tuscaloosa. He began by promoting the Mercedes Benz plant and had one of the largest private art collections in the world within the city.
"One lady asked me if we had cotton fields and catfish farms in our area. She said ag tourism is what tourists really want to see." It was an eye-opening experience for him. When he returned home, he immediately contacted Extension coordinator Wayne Ford in Tuscaloosa. Ford told him about and showed him the ag-related tourism spots in the Tuscaloosa area. It was the beginning of a long and trusted partnership. Ford, now retired, leads some of the ag-related tours.
Alabama Extension county coordinators from various counties attended the conference.
"The beauty of the conference is that it is very affordable, it is a grassroots effort, and the ideas that come from the speakers are amazing," says Patti-Presley Fuller from Greene County. "Attendees also are able to share ideas and successes with each other and that is a tremendous asset."
Marengo County Extension coordinator Kathryn Fridays says, Extension's role is to bring people together for discussion. "We are a constant partner and we have the outreach and network resources to help put key people together in each county and if necessary bring in someone who can help us see possibilities for tourism and community development that we may not have thought about." Extension also has the ability to bring people to the table to talk who would normally be divided on an issue.
"Basically we help develop a community product, then present it to our communities and help train our people -- leaders, business owners and workers -- to promote the product," says Fuller.
Both Friday and Fuller agree that anything Extension can do to help coordinate efforts will make things better for everyone. "All of the counties in the Black Belt struggle economically so we must take a regional approach to tourism. We are not going to have economic development until we have community development. If we can give someone a positive impression when they visit our area, we have a better chance to get them to bring business to our area. We may even pull in some Mississippi counties to work with us. Alabama and Mississippi are so much alike and the Black Belt does not end at the Alabama line," Friday says.
Pam Stenz, Wilcox County Extension coordinator, says there are a lot of treasures in the Black Belt counties. "We have lots of natural resources, civil war and civil rights history, and folk artists to build a tourism plan on. We never want to dwell on what we don't have but rather concentrate on the assets we do have."
For Verdell Trotter-Dees, a council person for the town of Mt. Vernon, this was her first time attending the conference. "Attending this conference was good for me as we are trying to develop tourism in our community. Each segment was helpful, and I am taking back a lot of valuable information to our community leaders. Because the conference is so affordable, we hope to bring more people to it next year."
As a follow-up to the conference, she and Terry Williams, a member of the Mt. Vernon Planning Board, are making plans to meet with ECDI director Joe Sumners who will conduct economic development strategic planning workshops for the community. They have also been working with Mobile County Extension coordinator Jim Todd and Monroe County Extension coordinator Willie Williams on Extension's Old Federal Road Rural Development Initiative.
Williams says, Extension's strength in all of this is networking. "We are able to tap into communities to help them develop in a variety of ways. We find out what the interests are of our communities, then connect them with experts for their projects."
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