Appalachian tourism efforts hampered by economy

ELBERTON: Along the quiet banks of Lake Russell, where bees buzz and grass blows lazily in the wind, Elbert County's top development official envisioned a resort that would bring vacationers' dollars to the declining granite quarrying hub.

But now she's expecting delays in building the 120-room, lakeside lodge because developers are reluctant to bet on tourism projects during the weak economy. "It's put a hitch in it all," said Anna Jones, head of the Development Authority of Elbert County.

Officials in the northeast Georgia county aren't alone in their frustration. Elsewhere in Appalachia, towns seeking to stay afloat by replacing dwindling blue-collar jobs with ones in the hospitality industry have been stymied by vacationers' reluctance to spend money, threatening what some saw as the first renaissance in generations for this rural belt stretching from southern New York to northern Mississippi.

The more than 420 counties that make up the Appalachian region have been hit especially hard by the recession, according to The Associated Press Economic Stress Index, which measures unemployment, bankruptcies and foreclosures at the county level.

Counties in the 205,000-square-mile area have seen a steeper decline than the nation as a whole. The counties had an average Stress Index score of 6.0 in November 2007, the last month before America slid into the recession, compared to a nationwide average of 5.4. In August 2009, Appalachian counties had an average Stress score of 12.46, compared to a nationwide average of 10.32.

For the last five years, the federal government has pumped millions into tourism projects in the region that's battled poverty for decades, including about $15,000 in 2008 to help Elbert County study where a lodge could be built.

But Anna Jones, head of the Development Authority of Elbert County, said she's afraid hotel developers won't be willing to take on the project because of difficulty securing financing.

"You feel sometimes like you have to fight for everything you get," Jones said. "Then something like this comes along. It makes it even more difficult."

Around the region, communities are stumbling again after only recently gaining a foothold in the tourism industry.

Promoters of the fledgling food-tourism industry in southeast Tennessee are fretting about how to entice eaters while working with a tight promotional budget. Similarly, organizers of a million-dollar arts and crafts school in Galax, Va., have scaled back marketing as Americans prove less likely to travel for their bluegrass music classes.

In Helen, Ga., a Bavarian-themed getaway near the Chattahoochee National Forest, tourist-dependent tax revenue recently dropped.

And in Elberton, Jones had estimated the lodge would create 50 jobs, and the tourists staying there would create a ripple effect throughout Elbert County. But the projected opening date for the lodge has been pushed back to a decade from now, a delay of five years, if it gets off the ground at all.

The city of 4,500, like much of the region, doesn't need anymore hitches.

Founded atop a deep vein of granite, Elberton boasts a granite museum, a fall granite festival, and manufacturers who ship enough rock to earn the city the title "Granite Capital of the World," according to the Elberton Granite Association.

But a decade ago, businesses began trickling out of the city, which sits nearly an hour off the Interstate. Then, Jones said, China and India entered the granite business. Next the housing crisis came along and orders for granite countertops shrank.

In July, Elbert County, home to Elberton, had an unemployment rate of 12.3 percent and a bankruptcy rate of 1.3 percent, according to the AP Stress Index.

Tourism is already a $29 billion a year industry in the Appalachia, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal agency created in 1963 by President John. F. Kennedy to fight poverty. But too much of that tourism is concentrated in a handful of areas, said its co-chair Anne Pope. In places like Sevier County, Tenn. home to Dollywood and part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park almost 1 in 4 workers are employed in food service or hotels.

"Communities that are moving forward ... have a diversified economic base that incorporates a number of economic development strategies," Pope said. "One of those, we hope, will be looking at the assets that you have whether they are natural, whether they are cultural."

The regional commission has invested almost $28 million under a program begun in 2004 to help communities with tourism and agricultural projects.

"You can't just sit back and hope that General Motors is going to come to your town some day," said Linda Caldwell, executive director for the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association.

The group has used part of a $29,000 federal grant to promote local barbecue restaurants and the apple stack desserts native to McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties, which respectively had AP Stress Index scores in July of 16.85, 20.77 and 14.72 among the top 15 percent worst-off counties in the nation.

The group is targeting a growing niche of culinary tourists, but for now, can only afford to advertise locally.

Southern cities are averaging a 12 to 20 percent drop in both hotel occupancy and travel spending since July 2008, according to J. Dana Clark, who teaches hospitality and tourism management at Appalachian State University, in Boone, N.C.

"If the economy turns around, travel and tourism will start to turn around six months after that," he said. "I would think the earliest we're going to see any real relief is probably the summer of 2010."

Even then, tourism won't be a panacea: In Helen, a northeastern Georgia town built to mimic a Bavarian enclave, hotel tax revenue dropped 12 percent for 2008 from the previous year, according to city manager Jerry Elkins.

About 1 in 10 workers in White County, which is home to Helen, are employed in the food service and hotel industries. White County had an AP Stress Index score of 12.17 in July.

"Our economy is a stool held up by a number of legs. We want one of those legs to be tourism but we don't want the only leg to be tourism," said Clark, who encourages Appalachian communities to see potential income in everything from cultivating new wineries to promoting their lush countryside as the ideal venue for destination weddings.

In Elberton, the granite industry hasn't entirely died. But quarries alone can't keep the lights on. Now Jones and other city leaders are hoping that the tranquility of Lake Russell will entice visitors, particularly baby boomers eager for nostalgia-type vacations and outdoor excursions.

"It's not just about going to Disney," Jones said.