Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Symposium Scoop

~Knox County Hosts First Ever Real Rural Tourism Symposium

Visitors from across the state pioneered Knox County’s Real Ranch Country Trail rating it as “fabulous family fun” last week during the 1st Ever Real Rural Tourism Symposium. The trail’s and Knox County’s first foray into regional tourism development drew participants from San Saba to Farmersville, Austin to Canadian with 66 people registered for the three day seminar and activities.

Gathering on Thursday evening for a get-acquainted tour, to find out what our neighbors are doing in Foard and Baylor Counties, served to prime the pump for Friday and Saturday’s assessment and planning missions. Thursday night explorers were treated to an outstanding example of “destination dining” with succulent steaks, and a great explanation of what and how by owners Duane and Margie, Doug and Angie Johnson at the Longhorn Steakhouse. They also experienced an eye-opening treat at the Comanche Springs Astronomy Campus, which few in the group had even imagined in this area, and with Carolyn Henry and Stacy Henry sharing the stories of Crowell and Foard County’s successful funding and renovation of a beautiful and functional activity center and the 12,000 acre Teacup Mountain recreation site leased by Foard County from the Corps of Engineers and managed by the non-profit Pease River Partners. Rusty and Malinda Moore hosted the group at their Crazy Lady Trading Post and Raggedy Creek Ranch a true one-stop shop offering everything from booking your trip, outfitting your hunting experience, buying all your take it home gifts, feeding you while you’re here, processing the meat and getting the mount done then bringing you back and hosting your special event. Wow, talk about inspiration for conversation on the ride home!

Friday’s road trip wound through Knox County beginning at the Courthouse in Benjamin, viewing our national landmark Brazos River Bridge, learning about Knox City’s awning, tractor art and mural projects and touring the old City Hall building. While there resource specialists from the Texas Historic Commission and Texas Department of Agriculture offered suggestions on financial support for historic and downtown building renovation and members of the tour group, many of whom were tourism and economic development professionals, shared their own experiences and ideas with the local tour group members. From Knox City the group went to Munday enjoying the sculpture and streetscape across from Munday Elementary, learning how the project was funded and is maintained, viewing the ongoing work on the old church being renovated into a theatre and Munday’s award winning Keep Munday Beautiful campaign.

Miller Creek was termed a “destination draw” that, although outside Knox County, can bring many visitors to Goree, Munday and Knox City. Positioning itself as the Gateway to Miller Creek makes sense for Goree, advised the tourism experts, as does that City’s attempts to support the clean-up and promotion of this neighboring attraction. Bob Rogers, representing Texas Parks and Wildlife and Dick Wilberforce, with the Texas Prairie Rivers Region, inspired the group with stories and examples of their nature tourism success, piggy backing private landowner and small town programs on public sites, to everyone’s advantage. With Roger’s example of the success of a program as simple as “Turtle in a Bucket” and Wilberforce’s 5 minute assessment of the seemingly endless possibilities for bird and wildlife observers right on the peninsula where the group was standing, locals and visitors loaded back up in their cars excited to see what lay around the next bend of the trail, convinced they could hold a visitors interest right in there own backyard.

Tours of downtown Goree, with the animated planning discussions led by Tammie Trainham, an eye opening visit to Todd Leake Farms in Vera and its’ 20,000 + native plants watered and fertilized from the old fish tank and drive by viewing of Knox County’s only orchard had the entourage engaged in multiple “What if” conversations as they arrived at Ranger Creek Lodge for lunch. Amid “oohs and awes” over the facility and expressions of surprise at the size of this major tourist operation, which brings guests from across the United States to Knox County, everyone enjoyed a delicious lunch, and the even more delicious air conditioning, while host Randy Walker shared the story of how this successful business started from the families need to diversify and find extra income from their traditional farming operation.

Rejuvenated, the tour moved to the beautiful and inspirational St. Joseph’s Church in Rhineland, itself a parable for the ability of a farm community to accomplish greatness with hard work and dedication. The tour guide was Dot Myers. Imagining a group of farmers making bricks, carving alters and statuary over 30 years, through the Great Depression, drought, sandstorms and World War II then putting it all together to create the magnificence and beauty of this traditionally beautiful building would convince the most cynical of what a small group of dedicated souls can accomplish.

Crossing The Narrows, Knox County’s National Historic Landmark, and the basis of Knox County’s national recognition in natural science and historic circles, taking a few moments to reflect on its’ significance as the watersheds split, sending one rivers’ water to the Mississippi and the other to the Gulf of Mexico, changing bird and wildlife designations as “eastern or western” species and historically making up the major corridor where Native American, Military and Frontier civilizations moved across the country, inspired a flurry of suggestions and comments from the tourism, nature education, history and event professionals in the group on the potential marketing opportunities to bring visitors to Knox County.

Like all good tours, the Real Ranch Country Tour paused with plenty of time and opportunity to spend money with the merchants, back in Benjamin, before gearing up again for the evenings’ entertainment in Truscott. Following a visit with Wyman Meinzer at the historic County Jail and primed for historic observation after a visit to the new Museum and presentation on the regions history by Clara Brown, participants literally stepped back in time on arrival in Truscott. An old fashioned community dinner, horse drawn stage coach, chuck wagon and “war” wagon rides and tours of the historic renovation set the stage for storytelling, poetry and harmonica by Tibb Burnett and story in song with Andy Wilkinson, Texas Tech University, Southwest Collection.

Rested up physically and charged mentally with the sights and conversations of the last 36 hours the Symposium convened Saturday morning at Stanfield’s Big Honker Lodge near Knox City. Welcomed by Knox City Mayor, and Lodge owner, Jeff Stanfield, the group began the day in awe of the fact that this small town business is the largest waterfowl hunting outfitter in the United States, even though many people in Knox County are unaware of its very existence. Professional presentations and the report from the Assessment Team, led by Eden Texas’ Economic Development and Tourism Director, Genora Young, soon turned to serious reflection and planning around the theme “How to Sell Your Hometown without Selling Your Soul”. Recurring comments by local participants like Jerry Bob Daniel, repeated their desire to diversify, to bring visitors to Knox County, to host them and have them enjoy our assets and life style and to be sure that what they enjoyed while they were here was authentic, respectful of our roots and reflective of our integrity. Andy Wilkinson led a discussion of how our art and history can frame that, Bob Rogers and Dick Wilberforce encouraged reflection on keeping it real and keeping it simple and bringing in other aspects of our natural resources. All three were key to remembering that we have more to offer than hunting. Just as these first businesses diversified from traditional commodity production agriculture to hunting, now we have the opportunity to diversify again, to expand our economy and opportunities to host and perhaps become home to others who enjoy and cherish the natural gifts we’ve been blessed with in Knox County. Resource team members from Texas Department of Agriculture, Texas Workforce Solutions, Texas Historic Commission, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Baylor County and Texas Prairie Rivers Region kept local participants busy taking notes as they presented sources for funding and technical support for local development and tourism projects and offered their own commentary on the possibilities they had seen over the last 3 days.

Steve Pepper, Knox City entrepreneur, closed the symposium’s program with a local outlook and response encouraging and challenging the local group from his own changed perspective, to become aware and involved. Pepper encouraged his friends and neighbors to do as he planned to, channel the time and energy used to develop success individually into a cooperative effort to preserve and develop Knox County together, benefiting each of us personally and communally.

Knox County Visioning Team’s Community Development Director, who organized the First Ever Real Rural Tourism Symposium, when asked to comment on the success of the event and what she hoped to see come from it offered her favorite quote “Never, ever doubt the ability of a small, dedicated group of people to change the world. In fact it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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