Saturday, December 20, 2008

Tourism Tsar for Delaware

I have been an active member of the Delaware arts community for 40 years and have had the opportunity to report on the subject for 18. With the assets we enjoy in Delaware, our strategic location, and two degrees of separation thanks to our size, I've never understood why our Department of Tourism has been locked away like Rapunzel in a tower.

In the past decade there has been a revolving chain of "Tourism" directors getting on and off the merry-go-round. Some of the recent directors have come from out of state with neither institutional memory nor comprehension of where we've been and who we are. "Tourism," by appearances and action, has been branded a nettlesome step-child of the Department of Economic Development.

Rapunzel, let down your hair! We could be a world-class destination.

The subject is so important that it should become a position directly reportable to Jack Markell, circumventing the stumbling bureaucracy of past administrations. The new division should be called Arts, Culture and Creative Economy, headed by a tourism czar, if you will.

Governor Elect Markell, in his mission statement “Ensuring a Vibrant Cultural Legacy,” states that there are more than 3,600 full-time jobs associated with the arts, bringing in $142 million annually. As a former Treasurer, he gets it. The arts and tourism are green industries. Our beaches and cultural venues are here, no capital investment required. This potential needs to be maximized.

The failure is in marketing and lack of a concentrated effort. Each county has its own fiefdom of Convention and Visitors Bureaus (CVB) -- the First State version of the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. The manner in which these organizations receive state funds – through a hotel/motel room tax (the hidden tax in tax-free Delaware) is archaic and insufficient.

Delaware holds the dubious honor of consistently ranking last or second to last in tourism funding for the last two decades. Do Rhode Island, Nebraska and North Dakota really have more noteworthy destination points than Delaware? I doubt it.

Decades ago, when Robin Williams filmed "Dead Poets Society" at St. Andrews, the Delaware Film Commission came into being and I was asked to be on it. But after just two meetings, that idea was as dead as Williams' poets.

A film commission under a tourism czar is a no-brainer. We've got beaches, we've got rolling Piedmont mountains, we've got historical venues for period films and we have castles in Chateau Country. Castles you ask? Visit Nemours. That's a venue begging for a period flick.

With the reduced cost of living and a czar to make instant decisions to cut red tape for filmmakers, Delaware is a perfect place. Many Hollywood films are shot in Canada for that very reason.

Stability and maintenance of existing venues is essential. Independent of any discussion with government, philanthropists Tatiana and Gerret Copeland have created Arts For Delawares Future, a campaign with a $12 million goal to stabilize what they saw as the precarious nature of the five largest non-profits in New Castle County. A czar would work to take their plan statewide.

The czar's mission would be simple. Create the perception and reality of Delaware as a world-class destination to non-Delawareans by engaging our corporations and citizens in the task.

That person would: support growth and development of tourism by promoting public and private investment in the creative economy sector; coordinate statewide destinations, CVB's and state and city agencies; serve as the liaison between the state and the cultural institutions and tourism venues; be an indefatigable and impassioned pitchman for Delaware.

It's obvious that Alan Levin, recently appointed as head of the Department of Economic Development, did not take this position for a paycheck. He wants to give back to the state that gave him so much. The czar would accompany him on meetings with prospective companies considering Delaware in their future and present a plan to be part of the cultural scene as well.

This subject will be explored in future columns.

Brandywine Hundred Greer Firestone writes about business and arts. He has been involved in Delaware arts for a half-century and has been the playwright for multiple productions in musical and historical genres.

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