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Bill Bucher: Tourists come to Rowan for good reasons

The secret’s out — Rowan County is becoming known as a tourist mecca.

Sunday’s article by Josh Bergeron in the Salisbury Post highlights the fact that visitors to Rowan during 2016 spent $160.47 million in Rowan County, a 4.31 percent increase from the prior year and the seventh straight year of increased tourist spending.

What does that mean for those of us who live and work in Rowan? Our growing tourism economy makes it possible to pay $27 million in payroll checks to some 1,360 employees, mostly Rowan residents. To give you an idea of just how big these number are, the number of classroom teachers in Rowan-Salisbury Schools is only a few more than this – 1,371, according to the school system’s latest Comprehensive Financial Statements (2014).

A recent article in USA Today reports that tourism not only creates jobs, it leads to increased tax revenues which in turn can lead to improvements in local infrastructure such as roads, schools, housing and hospitals. Tourism that focuses on the natural attractions of an area tends to focus attention on those resources and helps to promote their preservation and conservation for future generations.

Over the past 15 years, our elected leaders have debated endlessly about which kinds of new industry we need to attract in order to encourage the growth of good job opportunities and an economy which can grow as much as the areas around us have. And while they argued, local visionaries have been quietly banding together to bring us radical entertainment venues like the Meroney Theatre, the Norvell Theatre and the Lee Street Theatre, all successful enterprises in a town that once had trouble supporting a single movie theatre.

Rowan boasts its own symphony (Salisbury Symphony Orchestra), and many of our county’s 10 municipalities have developed uniquely local activities to promote the rich heritage of their particular place in Rowan County history, from Faith’s Fourth of July to China Grove’s Farmers’ Day, Landis’ Fall Festival, Woodleaf’s Tomato Festival and Rockwell’s Rockwell Fest. Salisbury has numerous street festivals and even a monthly Music at the Mural.

This weekend marks Civil War Weekend at the N.C. Transportation Museum, a unique event which is likely to attract thousands to Rowan from all over the state and beyond. And don’t get me started on all of the activities hosted by the Transportation Museum on an ongoing basis, from Thomas the Tank Engine to the fall “tourist trains” that depart Spencer for day trips to Charlottesville and Asheville.

Downtown spaces have been transformed at Easy Street, Fisher Street and Lee Street. Storefronts are filling with eclectic shops, and formerly abandoned warehouses now house a variety of small businesses, functioning like hatcheries for small enterprises. Local produce is featured in our farmers’ markets, and microbrewing and wineries are popping up such as the New Sarum Brewery, the Old Stone Winery, Cauble Creek Vineyard and the Morgan Ridge Winery. It’s easy to see that activity at area restaurants is picking up considerably from only a few years ago, and we are now hosts to new Cuban and Thai restaurants as well as a new artisan bakery. New shopping areas and several new hotels have appeared, mostly near where I-85 is coming through.

Why am I touting all of these fantastic Rowan County tourism features? I believe that it’s about time that Rowan’s leaders begin to embrace what many of us have known for quite some time: The greatest advantage we have over the Charlotte, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point areas is that we offer the advantage of proximity to all of them, and yet the distinct essence and flavors of a small-town community that has never lost touch with the better things in life. Put simply, we’re a great place to get away from the big city, we have a lot to offer and we’re near enough to much of North Carolina to make it a day-trip.

Let’s start embracing our new identity as one of North Carolina’s unique and vibrant treasures, and work together to develop a new reputation for Rowan as being one of the premier tourist destinations in the Southeast. Rowan’s attraction for tourists is a well-kept secret — but we shouldn’t keep it a secret any more.

Bill Bucher lives in Rowan County.

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