Four seems to figure prominently in Roger Brooks’ community assessments. At least it did in the one he delivered in Price last Friday.
“Overnight visitors spend four times more than day visitors. Four times.”
“Once we get out of our cars, you have a four-times chance of getting us to spend money.”
“People will go there if you can keep them busy for four times longer than it takes to get there.”
And for good measure.
“People are four times more likely to buy art when they get to meet the artist.”
There was also this gem: boutique hotels downtown sell more rooms, “four-to-one,” than hotels found along a highway.
As for billboards advertising your community—they should contain no more words than it takes to read in four seconds.
These and many other nuggets of wisdom were passed along to a crowd of interested residents, business owners and government officials representing Carbon County and the communities therein, particularly Price, Helper and Wellington.
Brooks and his wife Jane have traveled to 1,500 communities worldwide, delivering similar assessments in hopes of sparking the idea that will evolve into economic development dollars for struggling communities.
In numerous ways illustrated throughout last few weeks, Carbon County has confronted its economic development issues head on.
An earlier county economic development report cited innumerable issues affecting the area’s economy—lack of jobs, poor workforce training, poor attitudes, and a general malaise pushing future generations to move out of the area.
The report focused mainly on bringing manufacturing jobs to the area.
It said nothing about tourism.
Brooks didn’t like that.
“We noticed that the county recently did an economic development plan. Tourism wasn’t even mentioned. You need to go back and do some rewrites. Because it is the front of everything you’re doing,” he said.
Brooks made the case that many of the area’s business and political leaders are stuck in some sort of time warp, utilizing 1950s thinking to tackle 2018 problems.
He decried certain annoying facets of Carbon County living—businesses on Main Street that close at 6 p.m.; restaurants that close at 8 p.m.; storefronts with no curb appeal; signs that offer more threats than information; signs around towns and attractions that mislead more than lead, et cetera.
The combination of all of this culminates with visitors being more frustrated than fulfilled, and Carbon’s communities’ coffers receiving less in monetary benefits than should be the case.
Brooks is head of Roger Brooks International. He is a tourism consultant who routinely is invited to assess communities pluses and minuses—for a fee. His fee this time was split between Carbon County taxpayers and the Utah Office of Tourism, whose director, Brooks says, is committed to enhancing “rourism,” or rural tourism.
Brooks clued guests in on how much change has taken place in the travel habits of mankind since the 1950s. For instance, it’s all about experiences these days. People go out of their way to find cool places to spend their time and money. Developing spaces for quality of life has replaced developing spaces for economic development—attraction IS the economic development.
“For the first time in history, quality of life is leading economic development. Jobs are going where the talent is or the talent wants to be,” he said. “Community development is now leading economic or tourism development. So welcome to the age of place making.”
Brooks argues that creating better communities first, drives the majority of tourism later, which then creates the character of a community, ideally one attractive enough to the right kinds of people that industry will follow.
“Tourism has to be at the table with economic development. And by the way, nothing showcases quality of life like tourism. It’s your assets, your activities, your attractions,” he said.
Tourism, he added, is the fastest growing industry in Utah and across the country. “It’s the number one industry for new businesses,” he said.
Without Utah’s grand national parks, which attract visitors by the tens of thousands a year, local residents would face strikingly higher tax bills.
“If you took tourism away from Utah, each resident would pay an additional $300 or $400 in taxes each year. So that’s what it does for you,” Brooks said.
The secret sauce for community leaders is not to think of tourism as the reason people come to Carbon County. The secret is to focus energy on honing the activities available for them when they arrive.
“The number one activity of visitors in the world--not the reason they come, but the number one activity when they arrive—is shopping, dining and entertainment in a pedestrian-friendly setting.
“And look at this. That is where 80 percent of the non-lodging spending takes place.”
Carbon County is not lacking in reasons to visit. Brooks called Nine Mile Canyon this area’s Disneyland. But there is so much more. The Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, the Prehistoric Museum, Helper itself, bike trails, Scofield, just to name a few.
The problem he sees, is that once people do arrive, there are not enough ancillary economic activities—think shopping, dining and entertainment—to really provide economic power to the punch.
Part of Brooks’ appeal to community leaders is that he provides some direction on how to correct that.
One focus Brooks says every community should have is their downtown area. Helper, he commended for its Main Street. Price, not so much.
“Every elected official should say downtown is our number one priority, after schools. First of all, it’s an investment, not an expense,” Brooks said.
“The health of your downtown economically is how they gauge the health of your community. That is a huge challenge in Price.
“If I was a site selector and I came into these towns, the second I was in Helper, I would have gone, ‘we’re here,’ because of what they’re doing.
“And then, if you don’t hang out in your downtown, neither will your visitors. So it’s always community first.”
Beyond downtowns, Brooks offered a series of tips and ideas to bolster Carbon’s central communities.
For instance, in Wellington he suggested residents and business owners take more pride in the appearance of their properties. Restaurants and hotels should remove clutter from any outside spaces. They should also add curb appeal to make entering their businesses more of a soothing experience.
Brooks decries businesses having no separation between their asphalt parking lot and brick facade. Put planter boxes, chairs, colorful displays to break up the concrete convergence, he suggests.
Helper is the area’s example, Brooks said.
He believes the tiny old mining town is closer to a full-blown renaissance than many imagine.
“What Helper is doing is phenomenal,” he said.
The Amtrak train that glides through Helper will likely be dropping people off with their suitcases in 2-3 years, he said.
“Helper is setting the gold standard for the rest of Utah right now.”
Of the few insights he shared to improve Helper even more, he included getting rid of all chain link fences, putting brochures in some of the information kiosks around town, developing a better mix of businesses, particularly adding more galleries and more eateries and topping that off with a higher-end boutique hotel. For the naysayers who may push back, he said let them.
“There will always be push back.”
With Price, Brooks was less enthused. Downtown has no logical mix of businesses to keep people there after 6 p.m., for instance. Signs don’t specify what the businesses sell. Weeds grow tall from cracks in the sidewalks. There aren’t even any signs, he said, showing where downtown is.
“I don’t know how anyone would find downtown. There are no signs telling you where it is.”
As for signs, he says too many businesses post about not having rest rooms for the public, or that the business isn’t responsible for thefts or damage to property. He says that’s a no-no for any community seeking to attract more visitors.
“Our view of Price was, ‘Whoa. People are not welcome here,’” he said.
Brooks’ fix for Price is for elected leaders to create a special group of stakeholders, he called it a “Destination Price” team to focus all their efforts on remaking downtown.
Some of the ideas he posited were to build a mix of 20 shops, restaurants and other businesses that line Main Street, offer varied activities, at least half open after 6 p.m., and provide a pedestrian-friendly, visually-appealing experience to visitors.
Then, leaders should focus on a new wayfinding system of signage throughout the town to focus people’s attentions on downtown as well as the numerous other attractions the city has to offer.
Brooks said the city has more to offer than visitors think. Not only the museum and university, but the wave pool, skate park, BMX park, trail system, disc golf course and more.
“I bet 99 out of a hundred people who come to Price have no idea what Price is about. They have no idea you have stuff like this,” he said.
Brooks wrapped up his presentation after Price. Throughout, he enumerated his points with photo evidence of what he was talking about.
Sometimes he wasn’t totally correct—for example he suggested a baker and butcher shop for Helper, which already has them. However, his message was captivating to an audience clearly hungry to get Carbon County moving in the right direction economically.
With renewed gusto in planning and a community-first orientation, Brooks said he believes Castle Country can indeed become a destination location.