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Tourists by the old railroad station Chamber of Commerce in Yellow Springs. (Photo by Carol Simmons)

Tourists by the old railroad station Chamber of Commerce in Yellow Springs. (Photo by Carol Simmons)

Sidewalks packed in tourist town

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EYE ON OUR ECONOMY This is the seventh in a series of articles examining the economic landscape of Yellow Springs.In order to maintain a vibrant, vital village that offers the amenities we most want, “we need visitors beyond the 3,500 villagers who live here,” says Karen Wintrow, executive director of the Yellow Springs Chamber of Commerce as well as president of the Village Council.

And visitors we have.

Any local resident downtown on a beautiful spring weekend such as we’ve experienced in recent weeks can attest that the sidewalks, shops and restaurants are filled with people who hail from other zip codes. What their presence means to the life of the village is a topic of ongoing discussions by the local government, administration and business community, with varying levels of ease and acceptance. In light of those conversations, and as part of the Yellow Springs News’ ongoing series of articles on the village’s financial landscape, the paper is looking this week at some of the effects of tourism on the local economy.

“It’s huge having tourists come to town,” said Brian Rainey, the head chef and co-owner with his wife, Amy Boblitt, of Sunrise Cafe. He estimates that about 50 percent of his customers are from elsewhere, including “Cincinnati, Columbus, and all over Indiana. … I’ve had people tell me, ‘I drove from Kentucky to eat your pancakes.’” And he welcomes them. “I’m perfectly happy to have it a tourist town. It’s what Yellow Springs is, what it’s been as long as I’ve been here.”

Safe to say, visitors have been a fact of life since the village’s beginnings. The mineral-rich, fresh-water spring for which Yellow Springs is named inspired luxurious 19th century resorts and restorative spas, the remnants of which are still visible in parts of what is now Glen Helen Nature Preserve.

“By the time (Antioch’s first president) Horace Mann came through on the train, we already had a healthy tourist economy,” says Samantha Eckenrode, a local realtor as well as the owner and co-founder of Sam & Eddie’s Open Books. “The college is here because the village was already a cool, attractive place for many races and creeds.”

Eckenrode, who grew up in Yellow Springs, attended Antioch College and raised her son here, says that the village’s reputation for openness continues to attract people. She agrees that visitors play an integral role in the local economy, but she isn’t comfortable calling them tourists. “We don’t have people coming in with Hawaiian shirts and cameras around their necks. We have visitors who come here with a sense of purpose.”

As a realtor, Eckenrode says she has come to question what “local” means — is it living within the village limits, living in the school district, having a Yellow Springs mailing address, working in town, being an alum of the high school or college, feeling at home within the community? “We all found our way here one way or another,” she says.

Tourism grows

Marketing the village as a desirable place to visit, live and own a business is the work of the local Chamber of Commerce. Wintrow believes that visitors play an integral role in the village’s economy.

On weekends when the weather’s nice and schools are out, “the streets are packed,” she said. While the Chamber doesn’t have hard data on the number of visitors to town or their direct financial impact, its members collectively feel that the numbers are substantial — and necessary — Wintrow said.

The goal, she said, is maintaining the “stability” of the village.

She dates contemporary efforts toward that goal back to the early 2000s and a project started by the James McKee Men’s group. The project’s purpose was to get information about Yellow Springs out into the wider world to help assure the village’s continuing health and viability.

“The tag line was, ‘Work, Play, Learn, Live.’ It was actually more about attracting business and attracting people to live here,” she said.

The project evolved into “a concerted effort to rebuild the residential and business base” by attracting visitors as an important strategy. Wintrow was the administrator of that project, which featured the logo “Find Yourself Here” and included the launch of a portal website. She said she was then hired for the newly created chamber position, and the effort continued under the chamber’s auspices.

The thinking was: “Get people here for a few hours, extend that to a weekend. Highlight the schools and the village as a place where they might want to open a business. We basically took what Yellow Springs had to offer — what was so great about Yellow Springs. We didn’t make anything up. For us, it was never about changing what this community is. It was about taking what was great about this community and growing on that.”

The Village’s current website, which Wintrow said will be getting an overhaul soon, sports the tag line: “Destination Yellow Springs,” with sections for visitors, businesses and residents. “There is so much great about this community that it’s almost hard to communicate,” Wintrow said.

Visiting, then staying

Locally based artist Alice Robrish is an example of an active community member who first came to town as a visitor. She says that she was so charmed by the village during a long weekend visit with a friend in May 2004, she came back for a week that July, renting accommodations just outside the village limits to see if it maintained its allure during a longer visit on her own. “I rode my bike into town; I checked out the pottery. It felt like a fit. By the end of the week, I started looking for a place to rent,” she recalled earlier this week. She made the full-time move that fall and now has a home and studio on Dayton Street.

The bike trail, which was part of Robrish’s early encounters with Yellow Springs, brings visitors to town without any effort on the Chamber’s part, Wintrow said. “We’re seeing family vacations, retired couples, groups of retired couples. … The trail system in southwest Ohio is one of longest and best trail systems in the country, and we’re lucky to be sitting in the middle of it,” she said.

The village is in a position to serve those visitors and in turn benefit from the revenues they bring to town, she said. The same is true of visitors to Glen Helen, John Bryan State Park and Clifton Gorge, which together offer more than 2,000 contiguous acres of wooded public areas. According to Glen Helen’s most recent annual report, the nature preserve welcomed an estimated 100,000 visitors between June 2012 and July 2013.

Wintrow, who said the Chamber has extended its advertising into Columbus and Cincinnati, credits visitors who shop and dine here with helping many local establishments get through the recession that began in 2007-08.

“Retail and restaurants are some of the hardest hit” in economic downturns, but most local businesses held on, she said. “We’re supporting the retail community.”

Rise in short-term lodging

A swell in the number of local overnight accommodations over the past decade also reflects that the word is getting out. More than a dozen establishments — ranging from the long-established 12-room Springs Motel on the south end of town and the six-bedroom Arthur Morgan House Bed and Breakfast on West Limestone Street, to a variety of newer suites, cottages and guesthouses — offer overnight stays close at hand. And preparation for construction of the future Mills Park Hotel has begun at the corner of Xenia Avenue and East Limestone Street, suggesting the desire for additional rooms.

More is at work filling the inns than local advertising efforts, says Susanne Oldham, owner and proprietor of the Arthur Morgan House. “I barely get a morning off, because I’m rarely empty. And it’s not due to me. It’s Yellow Springs.”

Some customers are coming for special events in the area; some are repeat visitors who enjoy returning to town; some are traveling on Interstate 70 looking for an alternative to chain motels along the highway. Oldham says a big boost came after Yellow Springs was featured in the international Lonely Planet travel guide. “I’ve had guests from New Zealand, Australia and all over Europe.” They learned about Yellow Springs from Lonely Planet, which wrote, “Dayton has the aviation sights, but little Yellow Springs … has much more personality for accommodation and places to eat.”

Oldham says the village and her B&B have been listed also in “Particular Places, a Traveler’s Guide to Ohio’s Best Road Trips,” while the monthly Outside and Ohio magazines featured Yellow Springs in 2009 pieces about “our 10 favorite adventure burgs” and “Ohio’s best hometowns” respectively.

Patti Dallas and Marianne MacQueen opened Village Guesthouse, a four-room apartment connected to their house on West Davis Street, about four years ago. And business is good. The months of June through August are full “except for a day here and there,” while April, May, September and October are “fairly full,” MacQueen says. In the winter months, they’ve had success with more long-term rentals — people interested in getting a deeper feel for village life. The result, MacQueen says, is that three of the four winters they’ve been in operation have concluded with long-term guests deciding to relocate to Yellow Springs permanently.

While they’ve had some short-term stays from Europe and Great Britain, most guests are from the region and state, MacQueen said. “The big reason people come is because they have relatives here. That’s a really big group of people. Another group comes for workshops, like the Antioch Writer’s Workshop, or a specific event. People from Columbus and Cincinnati are often coming for a weekend getaway; while people from Cleveland and Toledo come because they love Yellow Springs and they feel they’ll be accepted here. They really enjoy the ambiance and community feeling in Yellow Springs.”

Although the evidence is more anecdotal than statistical, Yellow Springs’ overnight establishments did not experience the slight downturn seen elsewhere in Greene County last year, where “travel  (or at least from the aspect of visitors staying in hotels) was down about 2 percent in 2013,” according to Kathleen Young, the executive director of the Greene County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“As far as narrowing the tourism impact for Yellow Springs, there really is no way to measure that from the CVB view point,” she wrote in an email, but based on the number of phone calls her office receives concerning Yellow Springs, the village did not seem to be part of the temporary downward trend, which she blames on sequestration and its affect on hotels around Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Arts effect

In Yellow Springs, a significant contributor in bringing people to town is the arts community. An August 2012 National Public Radio’s Destination Art series featured the village in a piece titled “Yellow Springs: Art is the Core of this City.” While the performing and visual arts have played an important role in the life of the village for generations, promoting the village as an arts town is a newer effort that brings more people into town, Wintrow noted. Live music is available each weekend at several downtown venues, giving local musicians an audience and income. And the Little Art Theatre draws business from throughout the region not only with first-run film screenings, but also a variety of unique special events that include National Theater broadcasts, lectures and retro-movie screenings.

Locally based ceramicist Lisa Goldberg has instituted several high-profile events that bring visitors to town, the most prominent of which is the annual artist studio tours, which she started in 2004. In the beginning, the tours were held on a single day, twice a year, but that evolved into two-day events held the third weekend in October. This year will mark the 14th tour, “and it grows every year,” Goldberg says. “Each studio averages 600 people over the two days.”

Most visitors are from Ohio and surrounding states, but “some people plan their vacations” around the event.

She’s been told that the resulting restaurant business that weekend “is on par with street fair weekend. And stores like Design Sleep have done better, too.” What’s more, “the people who come to town (for the tours) tend to be more buyers than lookers.”

And the economic effect is not limited to that one weekend, Goldberg says. The visitors build “long-standing relationships” with local artists and “establish strong ties” to the community. They come back, and they bring family and friends. “There are short-term and long-term effects.”

The Yellow Springs Arts Council sees the arts as an economic driver with unlimited potential, increasing the village’s regional and national visibility with such programs as YS Experience events, the National Bronze Sculpture Symposium and the temporary mural panels lining the construction site at the future Mills Park Hotel.

Mixed responses

Nonprofits also maintain a presence at the twice-yearly street fairs, the Chamber’s biggest moneymaker, and according to Wintrow, the best days of business for local shops. An estimated 20,000 to 25,000 people attend the events, held the second Saturday in June and October. “They seem to be growing,” Wintrow said. What started more than 30 years ago as a sidewalk sale now includes more than 200 vendors, she said. The recently added music festival expands the day’s offerings while trying to maintain a local flavor, she said.

But the success of the event is a mixed blessing for some villagers, who express discomfort with the massive influx of strangers into town.

The Sunrise’s Brian Rainey, while welcoming the out-of-town business, sympathizes with villagers who worry about tourism’s unwanted effects. “I can definitely see where it’s a double-edged sword for the town. Lately, I kind of fear we’re getting more carnivalesque in tone.”

Former Village Council President Judith Hempfling offers a different kind of caution. While she recognizes the financial revenues and the liveliness visitors bring into town, she says she wonders about the costs to our infrastructure and Village services. “Our police budget is $1.2 million, three times that of Cedarville’s.” As Yellow Springs moves forward, she hopes decision-makers consider the full costs of tourism, and whether the costs outweigh the benefits.

She also notes that tourism-related employment is often lower paying, and she worries that the people serving our visitors won’t be able to afford to live here themselves. Is the emphasis on tourism financially sustainable for the village? Hempfling thinks putting village support behind institutions like Antioch College will have more long-term benefits. “We need to be willing to have critical conversations,” she said.

In terms of the police department, staffing levels related to tourism were discussed in recent Village Council meetings as it approved the village’s fiscal budget. Police Chief Anthony Pettiford had sought more money for the department to finance the hiring of additional officers, a request that was eventually denied. His argument was that the number of visitors to town necessitated a larger safety force than other like-size communities.

The request might sound as though the police see tourism as a problem, but Sergeant Naomi Penrod says that’s not the case. “It makes us much more busy,” she said. The types of calls are “easy,” but need attention — “lock outs, keys in cars, disabled vehicles, the occasional lost person — and spread the department thin. … As far as concerns of violent crime, we don’t see that as an issue as far as tourism goes.”

The number of visitors also seem to be rising, Penrod said. “Since I started in 2007, I would say there is a small steady increase.”

The availability of parking as well as public restroom facilities are of concern for Sam & Eddie’s Samantha Eckenrode.

“One of the perennial issues we have — in the 50-plus years I’ve lived here, are easy and accessible places” to park and use the restroom.

“Visitors are usually so happy to be here because there are so many attractions, so many things to do. … (But) we‘re never going to be a real tourist town” until we address these issues adequately. We seek out visitors and then make their trip an effort, which feels like a mixed welcome, she said. “We have to focus on the entirety of the message that we send.”

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