Spirit of Rowan: Tourism is growing by leaps and bounds

Published 11:38 am Tuesday, May 22, 2018

By Deirdre Parker Smith

The economic impact of tourism in Rowan County continues to grow, prompting further efforts to promote the county and its attractions, according to James Meacham, CEO of the Rowan County Tourism Authority.

“Tourism remains very strong” for Rowan County, Meacham says. “The numbers bear that out. Overall, tourism 2008-16 has grown just short of 50 percent.”

Meacham says that’s good considering the recession.

He says 2017 was the best year the county ever had in tourism.

“We saw the most growth, the most visitor spending, new hotels, increased attendance at attractions.”

Rowan County tourism has grown about 5 percent per year, moving the county steadily up into the top 30 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Meacham projects 2017 to show another 5 percent growth, but figures won’t be available until midyear.

Through December, Meacham says, Rowan saw a 14.9 percent growth in overnight visitors at hotels, bed and breakfasts and Airbnb sites. Just counting the revenue generated at hotels, including the monthly occupancy tax, 2017 will come in just under $15 million, compared to $13 million in 2016.

The Tourism Authority has benefitted from an incentives program with its partners. The biggest thing that partnership produced was the Polar Express at the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer. People were encouraged to stay overnight with certain package deals.

The Tourism Authority is also working with Piedmont Players to offer theater tickets to people who spend the night in the county. That has also produced positive results.

Increased group sales, different conferences, the Little League World Series games and other groups grew from 900 in 2016 to 1,382 in 2017.

Once Rowan launched the county brand “Be an original,” it also launched digital infrastructure on the website and social media.

“If you combine all that, from the electronic contacts to in-person, Rowan had 200,000 visitors in 2017. … Even the trolley averaged 1,000 people per month,” Meacham said.

Later this year, a new hotel, Hilton Home2, will be completed near Exit 75 on Interstate 85.

Airbnb is reshaping the lodging here, now taking a 5 percent share, Meacham says. An example would be Amie and Tommy’s Baudoin’s cabin in Gold Hill next to a Morgan Ridge tasting room.

When any hotel opens, the community benefits from the local property tax, sales tax, and water and sewer usage, generating about a quarter million dollars a year.

“We’re also excited that in 2019, we will host the N.C. Main Street Managers conference downtown. … We had the N.C. fine arts conference this week and next year, Little League is back.”

The Polar Express and Thomas the Tank Engine continue to grow, with about 2,000 room nights.

This year’s arts and agriculture program came directly from the new branding — “the things that make us an original.” Activities will begin in April and run through November, with both visitors and locals showing interest.

“It runs across the whole county — Gold Hill, Mount Ulla, Spencer, China Grove, Kannapolis. It’s exciting to be able to do something original and bring in more than one area,” Meacham says. “We’ve been working with 30 different partners to make this happen.”

The year will also see more attention in the Railwalk Arts district and finishing the way-finding system.

Meacham says “2018 is looking as good or better than 2017.”

He praised Kelly Alexander, director of the N.C. Transportation Museum.

“It’s a true testament to Kelly and her team that they can transform that site into a tourism destination through activities and promotions,” Meacham says, adding that the museum had to make changes with less funding from the state. The Polar Express moved December up from the slowest month to around “the middle of pack in terms of overnight visitors.”

Meacham stresses that the Tourism Authority is doing multiple feasibility studies on hotels — beyond what’s under construction — in the southern Rowan and Kannapolis areas.

“We’re setting ourselves up to prepare for the future, to maximize the growth up I-85.”

Dan Nicholas Park remains at the top of the list for visitors, both local and nonlocal, with its multiple attractions.

After Dan Nicholas Park, Lazy 5 Ranch is second in attendance, then the Transportation Museum; Patterson Farms is fourth, attracting visitors and field trips, with strawberries in spring and now fall events, as well. It’s a big draw for people from the Mooresville area.

Fifth is the arts and cultural institutions, including Piedmont Players Theatre, Lee Street theatre, Salisbury Symphony, and Waterworks Visual Arts Center, with a number of events and shows.

“That really speaks to the diversity of tourism here — parks, historic sites, a farm with animals, and arts and culture,” Meacham said.

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