Tourism has big effect on small town economies

Monday, May 11, 2009

Bordering on Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota, with their mountains, Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rushmore, Nebraska tends to have an inferiority complex when it comes to tourism.

But a new study completed by Dean Runyan Associates for the Nebraska Department of Economic Development shows that a little bit of tourism can have a big impact here, especially in our smallest counties.

The study reports 2008 data on direct travel spending by visitors, the resulting earnings and employment, and local and state tax revenues generated.

Naturally, Omaha and Douglas County have the largest share of the travel industry in any county in the state, but not when the impact is calculated as a percent of the local economy.

In Mullen and Hooker County, for instance, the travel industry generates 17.5 percent of all earnings. In Thedford and Thomas County, it jumps to 20.8 percent of all taxable sales. And, in Ogallala and Keith County, one of every 13 jobs is in the travel industry.

In Red Willow County, travelers and tourists spent nearly $10.5 million in 2008, and residents earned more than $3 million from serving the travel industry.

The "Great Lakes of Nebraska" -- Harry Strunk, Swanson, Hugh Butler and Enders -- are the first thing to come to mind when it comes to tourist attractions in Southwest Nebraska, but don't stop there.

Numerous historical sites are often overlooked, but smart travelers know how to find spots like the Champion Mill state historical site, or even the George Norris House and High Plains Historical Society Museum in McCook.

Now two more sites, in Cambridge, have been listed in a new publication, "Hidden Treasures and Fading Places" by Heritage Nebraska, a new statewide historic preservation advocacy and education group.

They are the Faling House -- now the Cambridge Bed and Breakfast, which will celebrate the 100th year of its construction in February.

The other is Thorndike Hall, the second floor of a downtown Cambridge building, built in 1907 and 08. There, a young trombone player named Glen Miller performed with a band led by Cambridge native Tommy Watkins in 1924, trying out their new "swing" and "big band" sounds.

Like these two spots, not all places of interest are open to the general public, but plenty of hidden treasures are readily available to travelers willing to stray off the beaten path.

With a little effort, attractions in even the smallest town can have a big impact on the local economy.

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