Harbor Town plan would make EC tourism hub


By Peter Thomson

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

For some time now Elizabeth City has spent considerable time and energy working to attract tourists. The reasons are straightforward: increased tourism would positively impact downtown, create new jobs, bolster the bottom line of existing businesses and create new hospitality locations. While our Convention and Visitors Bureau has worked hard, the desired influx really hasn’t happened. Oh, the hotels are getting fuller on the Fridays with folks stopping here on the way to the beach, but we really aren’t keeping them here more than overnight. We get visitors, not tourists.

Two years ago the CVB hired The Goss Agency from Asheville, acknowledged experts in destination tourism, to find out what we could do to change this, and to lay out a way forward. Goss examined, asked questions, chaired focus groups and toured the region. They came back with the following: Elizabeth City did not have enough attractions to become a tourism center; it needed to become a hub for all the attractions in the region. To achieve this they told us to apply money and expertise to our local attractions, network with other towns to create regional tours, advertise regional attractions on our website, and create “Albemarle Experiences” of all sorts: eco-tourism, hunting, fishing, touring the historic Albemarle, boating, bird watching and the like.

This same advice could have been given to Edenton, Hertford, Columbia or Plymouth, ‘cause it’s true of the region. None of the towns, proud as we are of our history and natural resources, have the attractions necessary to bring tourists here and keep them here. And while the Goss recommendations have been taken to heart, making a regional tourism network with only local expertise and funding is a slow process.

Which brings us to Nick Didow, professor at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler School of Business. Nick has a track record of thinking Big Picture. He personally launched the effort that grew into the $144 million Golden LEAF broadband Initiative connecting underserved counties in the northeast with the dark fiber necessary to connect them to the internet at high speed. That’s how come Eastern Shore Communications is able to soon bring affordable broadband service to Pasquotank County’s businesses.

Didow’s latest Big Picture is the Harbor Town project, a genuinely regional plan to build up each county’s tourism resources, provide revolving funds for downtown revitalization and bring big city expertise to bear on the development of attractions. He would then tie it all together with a ferry system whose operating costs would break even in the first year. This plan is not just ambitious for the Albemarle region; it’s transformative. It meets the criteria of the Goss Agency and then one-ups it by bringing in the funding and expertise to make it work, then cementing it all together with an attraction that lets the tourists leave their cars at home and enjoy the region one town at a time. It’s Goss on steroids.

For the towns of the Inner Banks it’s a brand new start. While the individual CVBs concentrate on local attractions, a regional network would advertise well…regionally, bringing the Inner Banks and its unique attractions into focus. The town’s problems would change from “How do we attract visitors?” to “What can we do to entertain them and keep them here?” And that’s a big step forward.

Peter Thomson is a resident of Elizabeth City.