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PONCA, Neb. — For most of its 78 years, Ponca State Park was a quiet getaway spot amid the wooded bluffs along the Missouri River.
But over the past two decades the park has been transformed. Thanks to a $20 million investment, new and fun activities and a smart marketing campaign, Ponca is “where people and nature meet.”
It has 17 new cabins, a modern lodge for meetings and classes, and additional land along the river for camping, fishing and waterfowl watching. New activities include kayaking, outdoor cooking classes and programs on shooting and nature skills. Kids can even dig in the mud for fossils.
The result: Nearly 800,000 visitors a year, up from about 200,000 before the improvements.
Nebraska tourism as a whole is looking for a similar transformation, and there's a lot going on within the state's third-largest industry.
A Minnesota company called Conventions, Sports and Leisure is completing a strategic plan. The plan, the first of its kind for Nebraska tourism, is intended to help make Nebraska more than a pass-through state to Yellowstone or the Rocky Mountains.
By July 1, Nebraska will have a separate agency for tourism. The Nebraska Tourism Commission, created by state lawmakers this spring, will operate like the Game and Parks Commission. A nine-member board appointed by the governor will call the shots.
Supporters say a separate agency will give tourism the attention and flexibility it needs.
Currently a division of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, the tourism office has been the “poor sister” that needs permission to do anything and never gets top billing, supporters of the change said.
A proposal by Gov. Dave Heineman this year to merge the Department of Economic Development with the Department of Labor eventually stalled.
“Tourism would have been buried so deep (in the merged agency), not much would have gotten done,” said State Sen. LeRoy Louden of Ellsworth, who sponsored the bill for a separate tourism agency.
The developments have energized the tourism industry, which generates about $3 billion a year and sustains 45,000 jobs.
“This is one of the most ground-changing times in Nebraska tourism since I've been a part of it. We're off and running,” said Mike Kesselring, co-chairman of the Nebraska Tourism Advisory Board, which will become the Nebraska Tourism Commission. He also operates the High Plains Homestead cookshack and bunkhouses near Toadstool Park in northwest Nebraska.
But on Thursday, at the last in a series of statewide meetings on the tourism strategic plan, it was clear that there still are unanswered questions — and divergent opinions — about the direction of tourism promotion and development.
To be sure, attracting tourists to Nebraska has always been a challenge. No ocean, mountains or vast forests here. No “great faces” or “Rocky Mountain high” on which to base a tourism pitch.
Nebraska is a land of great diversity — the terrain changes from farmland and tree-lined rivers in the east to wide-open grasslands and historic buttes in the west — but is that a strength or weakness?
A dozen people sitting at tables at Ponca State Park's visitors center debated how Nebraska was perceived, or whether people outside the state had any image of it at all.
Is this the “heart of America,” “where the West begins,” or “halfway to everywhere,” participants wondered.
One consensus among the group was that past promotion efforts took more of a “shotgun” approach instead of focusing on major draws, such as Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, Lake McConaughy and Mahoney and Ponca State Parks.
“The shotgun approach isn't very effective. You don't create an image of Nebraska that makes people come here or convinces Nebraskans to vacation at home,” said John Kingsbury, president of a Ponca bank and head of the Better Ponca Foundation, which helped guide the park's transformation.
“I think you have to appeal to people's senses,” Kingsbury said.
Heineman, in a meeting with the tourism consultants, urged them to devise a “laser-beam” approach that will provide a greater return on the more than $5 million spent annually to promote tourism.
Tourism officials seem to agree that a separate, single agency devoted to tourism will better focus the state's efforts.
“Hopefully a commission will bring a united front for tourism so that the state benefits and grows from it,” said Kathy McKillip, who heads the state's 10-employee Travel and Tourism Division.
Iowa's tourism division is part of its Economic Development Authority. South Dakota, which spends roughly twice as much as Nebraska on tourism promotion, created a separate tourism agency a year ago.
South Dakota's new Department of Tourism, which includes the State Historical Society and Arts Council, has been a big success, according to Wanda Goodman, deputy secretary of tourism in that state.
“Having a separate agency gives the attention that tourism deserves,” Goodman said. “We've enjoyed that separate focus and the ability to make some decisions on our own.”
For years Nebraska tourism officials complained that the state doesn't spend enough on tourism promotion. The state has ranked among the lowest in the country in promotional spending, financed through a statewide lodging tax.
It's unclear whether a separate agency will have more resources. It will have to finance its own office space, accountants and utility bills.
Jim Swenson, a regional parks manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, said there are opportunities to use existing funds better.
He handed out copies of a new brochure promoting “Lewis & Clark Country” along the Missouri River. It's a multi-agency effort to promote more than 40 tourist sites along the river associated with the famous 1804-06 expedition.
Swenson said more opportunities exist for such collaborations. Besides stronger regional cross-promotion, McKillip, the state tourism director, said the state needs to do a better job tracking tourists and why they visit particular attractions.
Joel Feldman, one of the consultants from Conventions, Sports and Leisure who has crisscrossed the state as part of the tourism study, said he sensed a lot of passion for tourism. But it's too early to say if a new state “tourism brand” will emerge from the study, which will be issued in June, he said.
“We hear a lot about diversity in the state, and we're trying to find ways to tie it all together,” Feldman said. “But that's not easy. It's not like you have ‘10,000 lakes' or Mount Rushmore here.”
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