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Great economic potential in hotel, waterpark proposals

I am writing in response to a letter submitted by my friend Ed Runden in the March 30 issue of The Corydon Democrat regarding the proposed hotel and waterpark development on the former site of Keller Manufacturing in Corydon. Some of Ed’s assertions deserve clarification or further explanation in order to foster an educated public discussion.
I agree with Ed’s suggestion that we need to know more about the proposal before the community can make a final decision. At present, the discussions have been about an idea.
Main Street Corydon and the Harrison County Convention and Visitors Bureau are doing our job by working with the developer to help him craft a final proposal, with great detail, that will ensure that the project makes aesthetic, economic and fiscal sense to our community. That proposal will make its way to the appropriate governmental bodies through very public processes where all interested in this issue can have input into the final decision.
Ed correctly asserts that the consultants working on a site plan for the former Keller location recommend a mixed-use development of retail and other services but suggests that the hotel and waterpark idea may be in conflict with that path.
The site plan being developed by The Estopinal Group of Jeffersonville is still a work in progress. The discussion at the public session was an interim step and part of the total planning process. Early input into the process came from interviews and from the Downtown Corydon Revitalization Master Plan and the CVB’s Destination Vision and Strategic Planning Report.
The Estopinal Group has been apprised of this potential development and it may be evaluated in the final report. While we still believe that a mixed use development also has merit, Don Peeples, the developer proposing the hotel and waterpark, doesn’t want to create a competitive environment for existing downtown businesses ‘ he wants to be complementary. He should be credited for this thoughtful, different approach.
I don’t think you’d find one merchant in downtown Corydon who would say we need more retail. We may need businesses that are open later with a deeper selection of merchandise to accommodate the wants of 100,000 new visitors to downtown. Having an anchor that drives that many visitors into our existing (and newly created) businesses is certainly one path toward a successful downtown.
Putting all our eggs in one basket, as Ed asserts, is risky. We’ve found that out in other areas of Harrison County’s economy. Relying heavily on auto parts manufacturing has had its risks. The sudden market changes that led to the vacancy at the Keller site point to how quickly things can go south ‘ or east. While we do need to evaluate the long term viability of this development proposal, one thing is certain: No one’s going to pick up the hotel and the waterpark and the associated jobs and move it all to Latin America or Asia.
Ed is concerned about the strain on existing Corydon water supplies. I believe that, once the water features of the park are filled, just like a swimming pool you have to top off, ongoing water usage will be manageable. Evaporation in an enclosed environment should be less than an open public pool on a hot July day.
Ed has also expressed concern about the viability of the travel market with rising gas prices. As prices approached $2 per gallon in the spring 2004 and 2003, similar worries were voiced. As it turned out, none of the doom and gloom came true. In fact, following Sept. 11, 2001, travel trends continue to favor short family getaways. Leisure travel volume and expenditures continue to rise to record levels, and the projections for 2005 are no exception ‘ even factoring in higher gas prices. If expensive fuel has any impact on tourism, it is not on the initial decision to travel or where to travel. There seems to be a little more spent on gas and a little less spent on other services. The most distant of Harrison County’s visitors come from 250 miles away. On a 500-mile round-trip with a vehicle that gets 16 miles per gallon, if gas goes up another 50 cents, that adds $15.63 to the total cost of the trip ‘ hardly a deterrent.
Regarding employment, Ed has been sucked into one of the great myths about hospitality industry employment ‘ that we’re only low-wage burger flippers. I maintain that tourism jobs offer the following benefits:
1. Hospitality is one of the last industries where one can start at the bottom and work their way up the ladder. I can’t begin to quantify the number of industry professionals who started off at the hotel front desk and moved to executive levels.
2. The hospitality industry trains America’s workforce. How many people got their first work experience in fast-food or other similar businesses? We teach people how to dress, how to show up to work on time, and all the other basic work skills from which the rest of the economy benefits in that worker’s later years. This entry-level employment and the associated training adds value to the economy. Almost no one who starts at minimum wage stays there their entire work life.
3. The heart and soul of tourism is small business. Restaurants, hotels, retail shops and attractions are mostly owned by small entrepreneurial companies. Many of our small businesses that benefit from visitor expenditures are hurting. I bet those owners will appreciate a raise (increase in profits) made possible by a new anchor attraction in Corydon.
4. For many families, seasonal or part-time work fits well into their lifestyle. The flexibility of the hospitality industry often means a second income for the household without having to get into the challenges associated with child care.
Finally, we would have loved it if a local resident had approached us about a large development for the Keller site so that profits could’ve been retained in the county. As it turns out, none did. If we insisted on local investment only, that may have left the project to the full funding of county government for redevelopment. That may have created a beneficial environment for redevelopment of the site, the return on investment may not have been as great.
And given the shenanigans in Indianapolis regarding our riverboat revenue, I’m not sure we can afford a totally public solution. As we live in a global economy, we cannot limit our vision to just what we can do for ourselves. We must find investors and partners wherever they are. Martinrea is not even an American-based company, but its investment in the community is, to most, a welcome alternative to the loss of jobs we faced.
While we still have much to learn about this project, I believe that what we will see from the developer is a proposal for a public-private partnership with limited public investment. If manufacturers readily receive tax incentives for expansion, surely such a project with the spin-off economic benefit brought by visitor dollars is worth further exploration.
I invite Ed and everyone else interested in learning more about the economics of tourism to a presentation on Monday, April 18, at 6:30 p.m. at the Wright Interpretive Center (formerly the Corydon Presbyterian Church) in downtown Corydon. A research team from Purdue will present the findings of the CVB-commissioned 2004 studies on Visitor Profile, Economic Impact, our Image in the market, and the Return on Investment for CVB marketing activities.
Jim Epperson has been executive director of the Harrison County Convention and Visitors Bureau for 2-1/2 years.