Popular HGTV show leads to local tourism boost – but what are the lasting effects?

Many HGTV shows are tenuously connected to actual communities – the focus is on the homes and personalities, not the neighborhoods and community. Fixer Upper and the efforts of the Gaines family in Waco, Texas may then be quite unique:

In 2015, they opened Magnolia Market, a home goods store that sells Mrs. Gaines’s mass-produced collections of bohemian farmhouse décor, and quickly followed with a bakery, garden shop and a turf-lawn park built near two old silos that had been constructed in 1950 by the Brazos Valley Cotton Oil Company. They also opened a nearby restaurant, Magnolia Table, in the former Elite Café, a longtime favorite that closed in 2016 after several different owners and renovations. When the Gaineses took it over, they installed subway tile along the walls, exposed the wood beams in the ceiling and stuck an ever-changing marquee sign out front. Naturally, the renovation was featured on their show.

No one’s complaining. The number of tourists to Waco has tripled in the four years since “Fixer Upper” first aired, with some 1.7 million people visiting in the first seven months of 2018 alone, and other local businesses have flourished with the influx. Carla Pendergraft, director of marketing for the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the appeal of the “Fixer Upper” brand has had a profound impact on the city.

Several quick thoughts::

1. The article touts increased tourism and a few local businesses that have benefited from the popularity of the show. Lacking are numbers about increased jobs and increased tax revenues.

2. The biggest bonus to Waco seems to be less about economics and more about status: the Gaines have helped make the city cool.

3. How long will this effect last? When Fixer Upper is done, will the family still exert the same pull on people? And if this trend dies down, how will the community of Waco respond? My guess would be that this uptick in tourism and interest will fade away if the Gaines are not as visible.

4. The concept of TV driven tourism is an intriguing one. People want to visit popular TV sites, like the Brady Bunch house for the Soprano’s home. Should more cities take advantage of shows that have strong connections to certain locations? Imagine Chicago building a full campaign around the Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Med galaxy.

Creative (trolls out of recycled wood!) and profitable (record attendance!) art at Morton Arboretum

How do you attract more people to a suburban arboretum? Have unique art installations with one large work loom over a busy highway:

Created by famed Danish artist Thomas Dambo, the exhibit features six large troll statues — most 15 to 20 feet high — made of repurposed wood and other recycled and natural materials, and spread throughout the 1,700-acre arboretum…

In July, about 163,000 people visited the arboretum — the most ever reported in a single month, Sargent said. The previous monthly record of 150,000 was set in October 2011. And last month was also a successful one, Sargent said, with more than 140,000 visitors.

In surveys and anecdotally, visitors explain they come specifically to see the trolls, but they’re also staying to see other parts of the arboretum they’ve never seen before, she said…

Dambo told the Tribune earlier this year that after he was approached to work on the exhibit — similar to art installations he’s completed in Copenhagen, Denmark, and South Korea — he would ride his bike around the arboretum to identify spots to place his creations. He wanted people to explore the grounds and its hiking paths to find all the trolls.

Art works often serve two masters: aesthetic beauty and reflection on the world as well as commercial concerns. Artists may not often talk about the commercial imperative – they have to eat too – while other actors may use art to bring in money.

Take public art displayed on street or public spaces of communities. On one hand, the art can enhance the experience of being in particular locations. Think of the Picasso statue in Daley Plaza in Chicago: it is a unique work by a very famous artist that is not easy to interpret. It is still popular decades later. Without the art, the plaza could be interpreted as a dreary concrete land amid tall buildings.

PicassoStatueChicago

On the other hand, art can draw people to a location and help encourage them to spend money. Communities want more visitors because they then buy items in shops, eat at restaurants, and bring in more money through payment to local businesses as well as through tax revenues. Take this statue of Paul Revere on the Freedom Trail in Boston:

paulrevereboston.jpg

The statue commemorates an important historical event but think of all the visitors that come to Boston to partake in this colonial history. Think of how much money they spend on hotels and food and tourist activities. This statue is part of a system that helps the local economy. It is still art but it also helps generate money.

There are inevitably tensions between these two poles: beauty and money. We have terms for this, such as sellout, someone who has given up on the artistic and creative side and now is just in it for the money. With public art, the two sides often go hand in hand: creativity leads to money which can lead back to more funds and will for creativity and so on. It is probably too simple to say everyone can win in these scenarios and yet many communities (and artists) continue to seek public art installations.

When bricks and mortar stores can’t make it even in Manhattan

Heart of one of the world’s leading global cities, Manhattan has its own struggles with keeping brick and mortar retailers in operation:

That’s right: On a nine-block stretch of what’s arguably the world’s most famous avenue, steps south of the bustling Time Warner Center and the planned new Nordstrom department store, lies a shopping wasteland.

Yes, there are bank branches, restaurants, fast-food outlets, theaters, Duane Reades, a vitamin shop and a few tourist-targeted “discount” stores. But mainly there are oodles of empty spaces covered with signs touting SUPERB CORNER RETAIL OPPORTUNITY.

The same crisis blights the rest of Manhattan. The people invested in storefront retailing — real-estate developers, landlords and retail companies themselves — tell us not to worry. It’s a “transitional” situation that will right itself over time. Authoritative-sounding surveys by real-estate and retail companies claim that Manhattan’s overall vacancy is only just 10 percent.

But they are all wrong. Bricks-and-mortar retail is shrinking so swiftly and on such a wide scale, it’s going to require big changes in how we plan our new buildings and our cities — although nobody wants to admit it.

This is an interesting argument to make: even with all of the tourists, wealth, and attention bestowed upon the borough, retail is disappearing from Manhattan. And if shopping disappears, with shopping being one of the favorite leisure activities of Americans, might this negatively affect the business and social life of a Manhattan used to ultra-busy sidewalks?

On the other hand, Manhattan may not be the best example. The median household income in Manhattan is not as high as one might expect, there is not much of a middle class, and the cost of living is high. Add in that Manhattan does have a lot of tourists, workers that arrive for the day and leave at night, and concentrations of residents in different parts of the island. The sheer density of people might suggest that retailers should be able to make it in Manhattan but it is a complicated place.

More broadly, what will tourist locations of the future look like if even more shopping is done online? For decades, the international tourist destination includes significant amounts of shopping. What would fill that space?

Increasing tourism in the Chicago suburbs

Suburbs may not dominate lists of where travelers want to vacation yet tourism is up in the Chicago suburbs:

Growth in tax revenue attributed to tourism from 2015 to 2016.

State receipts      Local tax receipts

Cook County          +4.5%                       +6.8%

DuPage County      +3.7%                       +6.1%

Kane County           +1.9%                       +4.2%

Lake County            +3.3%                       +5.6%

McHenry County    +6.5%                       +8.9%

Will County              +29.6%                     +16.1%

Sources: Illinois Office of Tourism, The Economic Impact of Travel on Illinois Counties 2014, a report prepared by the Research Department of the U.S. Travel Association.

It helps that every suburban region has carved out its own niche, focusing on different travelers. While they all woo convention and business travelers, Rosemont targets the international travelers who come through O’Hare International Airport; DuPage County emphasizes its forest preserves and natural spaces; Aurora focuses on attracting national youth sports tournaments; and Schaumburg eyes business travelers and mall-loving shoppers.

McHenry’s tourism — which saw the biggest gains in the latest reports — developed a niche with agritourism and fall festivities. Things like Richardson Adventure Farm’s world’s largest corn maze; giant fall festivals at local farms; and Quarry Cable Park, the newly renovated wakeboard park in Crystal Lake; are attracting more visitors to the area.

If you can get outsiders to come spend money in your community (rather than just relying on local revenues), it seems like a win for suburbs. Yet, there may also be downsides to increased suburban tourism:

  1. Some people move to suburbs to get away from people and crowds. Bringing in people might change the local atmosphere.
  2. More visitors may lead to a need to construct more infrastructure to support those visitors. This could include everything from roads to new facilities.
  3. As the article hints, this could turn into another venue for competition as suburbs try to draw visitors from other suburbs.

All of this highlights the changed nature of suburbs in recent decades: they are not just bedroom suburbs (and arguably never were) but rather are a diverse set of communities with a number of different attractions (from entertainment scenes to office parks to varied housing types to racial/ethnic and class diversity).

Film about McMansions on Martha’s Vineyard

Here is a review of how a film examining the larger and larger homes built on Martha’s Vineyard:

The premise of the film begins on familiar ground, with Bena casting a critical, almost dogmatic eye on the issue:

“On the first day that I arrived I landed several jobs and it wasn’t long before I was working seven days a week. My main gig was carpentry. At first I really enjoyed the work, but over time I found myself working on larger and larger homes. The larger the home, the more my sense of uneasiness increased. And the fact that they were often third or fourth homes seemed incongruous with their enormous size. They looked more like bus stations or hotels, not summer cottages.

The houses were heated year round and I found the waste of resources shocking and depressing. Not only did the “starter castles” dwarf the cottages and historic homes they replaced, they seemed out of keeping with everything that I love about Martha’s Vineyard. I felt like I was ruining the place that I wanted to call home. And that is why I took off my tool belt and picked up a camera.”

But as the film progresses, Bena’s approach becomes much more nuanced. In talking with other local carpenters who work on these huge houses, we discover that their livelihood depends on these large contracts. We hear from long-time residents, some of whom are uneasy about telling newcomers what to build or not to build. In his interviews with some of these owners of these oversize mansions, we hear the human side of their stories as well. But we also see how some of these wealthy homeowners take advantage of legal loopholes — or even flout them completely — with serious consequences.

This sounds interesting and surprisingly multi-faceted for a story about McMansions.

At the same time, I suspect the story is complicated here because of tourism. This is not a “normal” location but rather one that locals as well as thousands of visitors might consider “home.” Additionally, there is a lot of money involved with what it takes to visit and build (with limited land). When the president travels there and draws attention to this particular issue, this is a special place. The story of McMansions at Martha’s Vineyard might be able to reach more people because of the known location but it isn’t necessarily the same McMansion story as teardowns in Los Angeles neighborhoods or in suburbs outside of Washington D.C. or new McMansions in the exurbs.

Chicago sets new record for tourism

The city of Chicago may have problems but the number of tourists continues to increase:

An estimated 54.1 million visitors came to the city in 2016, up 2.9 percent from the previous year’s record-setting count. The increase marks a step towards reaching Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goal of annually attracting 55 million out-of-towners to Chicago by 2020…

Leisure proved to be the primary attraction behind Chicago’s rising tourism numbers. About four in five visitors last year (nearly 41 million) came to Chicago for fun, city officials say…

The long-running Blues Festival, the NFL Draft and the Chicago Cubs World Series victory parade were three major events last year that helped boost tourism numbers, Kelly said…

City officials also cite business visitation, which grew by 2.1 percent from the previous year, as another factor. Some 31 major conventions and meetings were hosted citywide throughout last year, drawing nearly one million attendees; 35 business meetings are slated for 2017.

I’d love to see how these numbers were calculated. Just take the suggestion that the Cubs World Series parade and rally are part of these totals; how big were those crowds? Early estimates were high but there was little commentary later about more solid figures. Were suburbanites who came in for the day counted as tourists? If the 5 million figure holds, then this one event on its own pushed the city from a lower number than the previous year to a record number.

President Obama and McMansions on Martha’s Vineyard

The president is vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard and this has become part of a local controversy over McMansions:

But film-maker Thomas Bena says the house the Obamas are renting this year is a prime example of the kind of mega-construction that is threatening to destroy the character of the island.

Bena has spent 12 years making a film called One Big Home, which is being shown to islanders this weekend. It documents an issue that is as tricky for residents of the Vineyard as it is for beach destinations everywhere: how to protect small communities from the distortions created by an influx of wealthy visitors who come for just eight weeks of the year. The film chronicles Bena’s crusade against the proliferation of outsize homes in the town of Chilmark, where he lives with his wife, Mollie, and daughter, Emma.

Bena argues that the giant homes – often referred to as McMansions – are not only out of proportion with their environment but are wasteful symbols of the over-reaching vanity of their absentee owners. Over the past 20 years, what started as an aberration is now a trend – Mansionisation, or the practice of building the largest possible house on a plot of land…

A backlash has started, with people in Martha’s Vineyard – and in the Hamptons on Long Island – questioning the wisdom of land being turned over to mansions that sit empty – but heated – for 10 months of the year. In Los Angeles, the city planning commission recently voted to eliminate various loopholes, including one that grants a 20% square footage bonus for building “green,” that has been contributing to bigger-is-better mansionisation…

Bena believes McMansions have contributed to a new sense of “us and them”, local people and summer visitors. “In the summer you feel that tension wherever you go,” he says. “People put a smile on their face because they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them, but it’s there.”

It seems that there are three issues at hand:

  1. The construction of large houses – McMansions – within long-standing communities leads to tensions in many communities, not just prime vacation spots. The situation is exacerbated here because the large house owners aren’t in the community all year long and so there is likely less interaction between them and the long-time residents. Of course, having neighbors that know each other doesn’t necessarily limit the anger regarding McMansions.
  2. The limits of tourism to transform existing communities. On one hand, tourism is often viewed by places as an excellent opportunity: other people come in, spend money (and can be taxed at higher rates – see the hotel taxes in many major cities), and then go home (the community doesn’t have to provide long-term local services like schools for the tourists). This may be preferable to polluting factories or evil corporations. On the other hand, tourism can bring in an influx of people who have their own ideas of what they want and can swamp the smaller local population.
  3. Having the President visit provides an opportunity for locals to draw attention to their particular concerns. Should they be proud the President is visiting or unhappy that such visits can be disruptive? This may just depend on one’s political leanings and which party is in office.

In this case, if outsiders want to spend big money on large homes (providing some local construction money and increased tax money) plus spend some time there during the year (spending more money), what limits should a vacation spot put on them?