A couple driving a dusty white suburban stops at the first gas station they see and their five kids pile out racing for the restroom. An hour can be spared to “stretch the legs” a bit. So, they ask the clerk, “What’s there to do here?”
That family stops in Alliance and thousands of communities in America every day. The clerk, or whomever they ask, could be the difference between a memorable stop and a frustrating waste of time.
Not many people are concerned with who “runs” local tourism. The experience is key. In Alliance the department did transfer, in July — the midst of the season. The city of Alliance handed its tourism department to Box Butte Development Corporation (BBDC). The transition began with a campaign distributing brochures, spreading the word on social media and sending email. Still in the same building, a traveler stopping to ask a question in June could find the only difference coming back in September was the person behind the desk. Two new attractions are the recently completed Alliance Public Schools athletic track and the disc golf course at Laing Park to be expanded to 18 holes.
BBDC Director Chelsie Herian oversees the new department. Newly hired Shaylee Hance, assistant director for BBDC, devotes half her duties to tourism. She started Aug. 13. The City remains tied to tourism through a contract with BBDC.
First year numbers will not come close to the stellar marks set in 2017.The Great American Eclipse brought people here in droves and the City’s tourism department could not have been happier. Take out that phenomenon and 2018 has been a comparable year to date. Carhenge posted higher revenue. Bands on the Bricks played mostly for a local audience and people passing by who stopped for the open air concert, usually bringing in crowds of 500 to 1,000. Herian said, “Heritage Days was great. Dobby’s (fall festival), car show, happy to give events (attention) we market.” Heritage Days continues to bring the greatest influx of people to the community — thousands Wednesday through Sunday. The rodeo is a draw, with weather sometimes affecting crowds. Box Butte Reservoir is anticipating more traffic with its updated boat launch. Carhenge, Alliance’s most notable attraction saw progress in 2018 with $68,000 projected and $73,000 received. The site is always maintained. Interns here though BBDC this past summer headed up work teams. Carhenge sees thousands of visitors a year. One time the Sidney volleyball team stopped by and took team photos. Herian has heard quite a few ideas there next year. Stargazing has brought some people. A kite festival is planned at Carhenge. The Alliance Recreation Center recently conducted a yoga class at Carhenge in recognition of the fall equinox.
The Pit Stop has been at Carhenge for years and collects sales tax like any other Alliance retail business. BBDC is focusing on the tax since it will appear on the ballot next month. Proposition 2 would amend the economic plan would allow film products at places like Carhenge, documentaries, museum or Dobby’s. She said they could offset some of the expense with LB 840 to allow someone to come in and do something. The first meeting with the public was Tuesday. Proposition 1 will renew the sales tax itself without changes. Herian noted that 50 percent of the tax collected is from people traveling through town. She said communities like Scottsbluff and Chadron have not been having the same success with the tax Alliance has been. The tax is on the ballot every 10 years, first approved by voters in 1988. Herian said it began to benefit the community in 2001, Herian said. Street upgrades this year and in 2017 were made possible by sales tax. It’s (sales tax is) a tool in our toolbox a lot communities don’t have,” she said. BBDC will add “table tents” at restaurants to present sales tax information.
Herian mentioned LB840 development funds. In Alliance (since their inception) it has meant 100.5 new or retained jobs. There has been $1.7 million awarded including six small businesses.
Hance sits on BBDC’s new Hospitality and Attractions Committee. She said they are,
“Talking about bringing more people in, having more events. (Also the committee is) dedicated to great customer service at high traffic areas.” A primary goal is to educate front line staff, who are given cheat cards to keep on hand. “Great ideas,” she said. The group meets on the second Tuesday of the month. Their initial meeting is 2 p.m. Nov. 8. The topic will be inside hotel management. The group is relatively small with 10 members or so.
Hotels and motels serve as a barometer of the number of people staying in Alliance over any given timeframe. Herian explained the occupation tax for these establishments is collected a month later. When one location became an Econolodge there was an up tick in their taxes. As the Holiday Inn Express, with 72 rooms, prepares to open this fall she expects another up tick there. Herian noted a recent trend of upgrading at local motels driven by the addition of the first lodging in about 20 years. The new hotel also features a 40-50-seat conference room. She would like to be able to attract more people here for conferences. A major barrier is no hotel has conference center. She said visitors could be shuttled to the Knight Museum and Sandhills Center or likely the Performing Arts Center for the conference.
Camping is also a lodging component Herian did not want to neglect, still seeing RVs and campers on local highways.
Alliance will be hosting Rural Rendezvous at Holiday Inn Express in September 2019. The target area is west of a line from Valentine to Sidney. Herian said it is talking about rural issues. An example of rural economic development was Herian working to open Share Bears.
Tourism works well when it is always in front of people in a non-confrontation manner.
How a community looks as a visitor enters can mean the difference between returning or avoiding a “dirty” community. BBDC is targeting the Highway 2 (Third Street) corridor from Highway 385 to the underpass. Most of this stretch had been landscaped by the Highway Department while widening Third Street to five lanes. The majority of property owners let that area degrade. They have a five-year beautification goal.
The development corporation would also like to capitalize on interest from railroad enthusiasts with an observation tower. Herian noted the people who walk up overpasses and other vantage points to shoot a photo.
Not every tourist asks a clerk for information. A minority find the tourism office at the Box Butte Central Building in the 300 block of Box Butte. Of these a handful really want to know what goes on here. What can they do outside the motel that will be “fun” or “interesting.” Recently a man familiar with Alliance came in and basically attempted to stump the staff. After a little back and forth they suggested Dobby’s. He’d never been there before and set off on a new adventure. It may not take 20 questions, just the right answers. “Never been to Alliance before? Try this …”