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Engaging the Public in Tourism-Based Development and Other Community Efforts

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By William Hatcher and Stephanie Mcspirit
September 9, 2014

In last month’s column, I discussed how rural communities need to implement the rural growth trifecta model by taking advantage of their outdoor amenities, supporting entrepreneurial endeavors and cultivating the creative class. This month, I’ve asked Dr. Stephanie Mcspirit, a colleague at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU), to join the column so we can discuss how we, through a team at EKU, are attempting to engage the public in community development efforts.

In Hatcher septrecent weeks, PA Times online has published a number of insightful articles on the benefits of state and local governments engaging in tourism-based development. For instance, Stephen Kleinschmit discussed the economic and community benefits of states promoting their park systems as a form of ecotourism. Sungsoo Kim and Chad Miller explained how states must invest in basic infrastructure and skilled workers to promote tourism for tourism-based development to truly work. As these articles and others discussed, tourism should be a key economic development strategy, but there has been little discussion concerning how to engage citizens in development.

The Need for Sustainability

Tourism-based development needs to be sustainable. It is important that communities protect the environment and preserve their local cultural heritage. Additionally, it is crucial that local citizens control tourism-based development efforts in their communities. The vision-building process, for tourism and other forms of community development, needs to take a bottom-up approach where communities are given plans drafted by consultants. Implementation of a community vision needs to be a community enterprise, with local citizens serving on boards that are empowered to put development visions into action.

For this bottom-up, sustainable development to occur, local citizens, development professionals and elected officials have to support public participation efforts. In an article published in Community Development, Sherma Roberts reports research demonstrating how clear goals and institutional support from governing bodies are necessary components for participation. Citizens need to retain control of the development process, but they also need institutional support in the form of needed funding and political backing.

Research shows that tourism is a good first step for communities to practice sustainable development and public engagement. Based on their research on craft tourism in Appalachia, Nancy Gard Mcgehee and Alison C. Meares argue that strategies built around the arts and crafts are low cost, making it more likely that citizens will be able to retain local control. Given this, tourism-based development is a good starting point for public engagement in broader areas of community development. Therefore, how can we, as development scholars and practitioners, help communities build local capacity to construct development visions and implement those visions?

A Sustainable Model of Public Engagement

Along with colleagues at EKU and the University’s Center for Appalachian Regional Engagement and Stewardship (CARES), we have been working on a model of engagement. The model has been focused on tourism-based development, but it can be used for developing other community assets. The model calls for local citizens to have a voice in development through a two-step process: (1) the use of surveys and interviews to capture public opinion and (2) the use of community forums to help citizens formulate a vision and start implementing their ideas.

The community of Elkhorn City is located in southeastern Kentucky near the Virginia border and close to the Breaks Interstate Park, home to the deepest canyon system east of the Mississippi River. Starting in 2012, a team of students and faculty from EKU and the University of Kentucky, lead by Dr. McSpirit, collected 21 interviews from various stakeholders in the community and visitors to the Breaks. The combination of stakeholder interviews and surveys of residents and visitors has given the community important information that can be used to craft effective development strategies and apply for grant funding for projects to put those strategies in place.

To ensure sustainable development, a long-term commitment has to be demonstrated by the engagement team. Citizens need to have the infrastructure in place for them to participate directly in development. Our colleagues at EKU are demonstrating long-term commitments to communities. In Elkhorn City, for example, Drs. Michael Bradley and Ryan Sharp, faculty from EKU’s Department of Recreation and Park Administration, have helped the Elkhorn City Heritage Council apply to be designated as a trail town, a state program that helps communities develop and promote their trails.

How is our team helping communities build the long-term infrastructure needed for participation? After data is collected through interviews and representative surveys, our engagement model calls for applied public participation forums. These forums help communities accomplish two goals: the development of a community vision and the development of needed infrastructure to formulate and implement strategies to achieve this vision. The structure of our participation forums relies heavily on best practices from the research on public participation in public administration and planning.

The information collected earlier in the engagement process is used to develop particular subgroups (such as infrastructure, industry, small business, downtown revitalization, etc.) for communitywide forums. Through these forums, a vision for the community is developed. Next, the subgroups work separately to construct strategies for the community in their particular areas. Ideally, the subgroups will then form the infrastructure needed to help local development officials and other community leaders implement the overall vision.

Over the next few months, our team will continue to work with Elkhorn City and start working with Estill County, Kentucky to put in place this engagement model. In future columns, I will discuss the process and lessons learned from engaging the public in development.

Authors: William Hatcher, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the department of government at Eastern Kentucky University. He can be reached at [email protected]. Stephanie Mcspirit, Ph.D. is a professor in the department of anthropology, sociology and social work at Eastern Kentucky University. (Their opinions are their own and do not necessarily represent those of their employer.)

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