Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tourism: A Cautionary Tale

As an author of Lost Communities of Virginia, I recently participated in the Virginia Festival of the Book and had the opportunity to think about potential economic drivers to revitalize these places. Many of the places are isolated geographically, at the far ends of the state, or far out (and up) winding mountain roads. Despite the isolation, several of the places are reinventing themselves as tourist destinations. Paint Bank is a busy place on a weekend afternoon as people navigate the curvy roads to have lunch at the Swinging Bridge Restaurant, shop in the General Store, or spend the night at the Depot Bed and Breakfast. Which brings me to the question: is tourism an appropriate way to revitalize or preserve a community that has seen better days?

Tourism can be a great economic driver and far less disruptive than heavy industry. Once you've enticed tourists, they need a place to eat, a place to stay, things to do...all of those needs can result in a revitalized Main Street, new businesses, jobs, and more tourists. But, what does that do for the locals? Sure, they may be the business owners or workers, but what does tourism do to their way of life? Do they still have local shopping and commerce opportunities or have all the businesses become antique shops, art galleries, gift shops, and trendy restaurants? 

Virginia Tourism Corporation has several trail opportunities that are meant to help struggling areas of Southwest Virginia showcase their talents. Artists, crafters, and musicians are the focus of 'Round the Mountain and the Crooked Road, with the trails guiding visitors into rural areas to visit studios and attend events. That seems like a noble effort, but what if these efforts really take off? Part of the charm of the trails is the rural nature of the venues. How does that change if hundreds or even thousands of people start visiting these places? 

What does tourism do to the environment? If the tourism draw is a river, mountains, or the ocean, what happens when more people use the resources? More people can mean the need for more lodging and restaurants; beyond what the community's existing buildings can handle. What happens we tear down the old downtown or level the dunes to build a new multi-story hotel? We end up with Pigeon Forge and Myrtle Beach. Places that are tourist meccas today, but where the original character and charm that originally brought visitors has been lost. Is that what we really want when we attract tourists to rural areas?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Trip to the Springs

In the mountains connecting Virginia and West Virginia, there are countless mineral springs. Many of the springs became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, first as healing springs and later as resorts. The different minerals and compositions of the waters were thought to heal most any ill either by drinking or bathing in the water. Most of these places had hotels at one time and traces of the resorts can be found in the landscape as well as in descriptive road and community names: Red Sulphur, White Sulphur, Blue Sulphur, Green Sulphur, Yellow Sulphur, Sweet Sulphur, Sweet Chalybeate, Sweet, Hot, Warm...

We were fortunate this weekend, to have the opportunity to attend a conference at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia. While the first resort buildings were built in the 1700s, the large brick hotel seen today wasn't built until the early 1900s. The building was built in the Colonial Revival style with plenty of columns, pilasters, floor-to-ceiling windows to let in natural light, and sumptuous spaces to delight the preservationist in me. Sitting in the Grand Hall, you can imagine well-known guests from years past arriving with their entourages or making their way to dinner. The Homestead has hosted presidents from Washington to Clinton and the rich and famous from financiers like J. Pierpont Morgan to well-known names like Thomas Edison. 

The Homestead is, today, still a place known for its excellence and not one that we can frequent often, but it is fun to imagine the past while we are there. To imagine the intrepid travelers in the 18th and 19th centuries who came to Hot Springs by horseback, wagon, or stagecoach, from Eastern Virginia and other areas of the South, climbing the curvy mountain roads, carrying their many trunks of elegant clothing, to heal in the springs or enjoy resort activities. Even today, there are many roads to The Homestead, but no easy way there. It is a slow, winding, uphill trek in a car on paved roads, but by horse on dirt roads? Wow.

We also stopped to visit the bath houses at Jefferson Pools in Warm Springs. Unfortunately, though owned by The Homestead, they don't seem to be faring as well as the hotel. The Gentlemen's Spa was built in 1761 and the women's in 1836. Both are large frame buildings inclosing the spring-fed pools that naturally run at about 98 degrees. Though still open to the public, the exteriors of the buildings show wear with missing wooden shingles and rotted boardwalks. The buildings were placed on Preservation Virginia's Most Endangered List in 2010 and were listed as Threatened by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2011. The local Friends of the Pool have mobilized to save the bath houses, but without hotel's blessing, that can't happen. Hopefully, The Homestead will decide soon to preserve and restore the bath houses to a level becoming of such a luxury hotel before it is too late.