Tourism: concentration and dispersion

The facts of life of Civil War tourism, as previously mentioned here, are that the big attractions concentrate visitors and the lesser attractions struggle to attract those few Americans who may have heard of them. There is the Gettysburg tier. Below that lies Antietam (maybe Shiloh, Chickamauga, Fredericksburg, and Vicksburg are on the same plane as Antietam). Below that yawns the void that eats dollars invested to attract visits.

There are two schools of thought among economic planners. The first is that concentration is essential and that smaller attractions are harmful to the main attraction(s). The second school of thought is that "trails" should either ladle out the abundance of tourists from the main site or create a significant attraction through a composite effect of lesser destinations.

Right now, in the battle of heritage tourism, the dispersionists have whipped the concentrationists.

Meanwhile, bucking the trend, two towns have opted out of a Maryland Civil War trails type of program, to the consternation of many. These towns are Brunswick (formerly "Berlin") and Walkersville. The naysayers there soberly suggest that costs will outweigh benefits. The ayesayers are baffled by that idea, particularly since they seem oblivious to hidden costs. They seem also to believe that there is an unlimited supply of outsiders ready to visit and spend their money in local establishments.

A particularly odd display of the tourism prosperity syndrome comes out of Burkittsville, near Crampton's Gap: " 'I encouraged my council to approve it [trails membership],' said Heidi Campbell-Shoaf, Burkittsville mayor and the curator of the Historical Society of Frederick County." Why? Maybe that's the historian in her speaking rather than the promoter of local commerce.

I have, on the way to the Gap, looked around Burkittsville in a quest to spend my outsider money and thereby enrich the locals. Resident Tim Reese told me there was a store where I could have (IIRC) bought a broom, if I had been paying attention. I have missed this broom outlet on the last two or three visits. I am Heidi's tourist. I was carrying those coveted tourism dollars. How many failed broom transactions will the trail bring to Burkittsville and at what cost?

Meanwhile, what a remarkable piece of mass psychology this heritage tourism is.

Locals may look at at their local ACW site as Gettysburg scaled down. But Gettysburg doesn't scale - the fall off in tourist interest is exponential. And somehow, lost on everyone, is that further reality of Gettysburg debating casinos because so many tourists skip visiting the town.

(By the way, have you looked at the commercial "district" of Sharpsburg lately? Is that something to aspire to?)

May I finally point out that the effect of Gettyburg - as place - is overwhelming, in part because of the scale, in part because of the incredible number of monuments, and in part because of the place it holds in the national imagination. This generates word of mouth, regardless of whether the visitor is ACW savvy or not. The effect can't be repeated by driving through a number of weedy crossroads marked by rusting signs. Nor will it be generated in a pep talk on the role of Berlin in the Civil War.

If you want to be like Gettysburg, you need stories about turning points, an immense amount of funerary architecture, hundreds of acres of tidy green, and serious amenities and commercial infrastructure. You need lots of books published about your place plus a few movies. You need to have heard about the place in grammar school.

When you pass that threshhold, you become eligible to fruitlessly debate new ways to try to get people into the shopping districts downtown. The wiser heads in Brunswick and Walkersville understand that and sensibly voted themselves off the trail. Which would have cost them money sooner or later.

There's a bumpersticker for you: GET OFF THE TRAIL!

Brief story here.
Long story here (requires sign-up).