Lots of traffic with somewhere to go zooms up and down I-44 and most is passing the St. James and Rolla offramp exits. This new partnership, or “destination marketing organization” wants to change that.

The Phelps County Commission has been on their annual tour, holding evening meetings in Rolla, St. James, Doolittle and Newburg to highlight county projects through presentations from county officials. One county project has gained particular interest because it can have an impact on the towns where these meetings are held.

City administrators will tell you that a town is only as vibrant as the leadership in the town. The Executive Director of the Rolla Regional Economic Commission (RREC) Cyndra Lorey and the City of St. James have put together a new leadership initiative to expand the county’s opportunities through the vehicle of tourism.

Lots of traffic with somewhere to go zooms up and down I-44 and most is passing the St. James and Rolla offramp exits. This new partnership, or “destination marketing organization” wants to change that. But it’s not as simple as erecting a tall, iconic statue, such as graced the original Route 66, when novelty excited a generation after WW II.  Plus, according to Brian DePew, the director of the Center for Rural Affairs (CRA), “one of the biggest objections to tourism is that residents don’t want their small town to be “Aspenized” or “Bransonized.”” 

He says the drawbacks could lead to lots of development, increased land taxes and loss of the quiet small town life that is cherished by many. Still, without growth, many opportunities for residents are missed, or worse, the town slips into economic depression.

Visitors that come to St. James for outdoor sports, the wineries and scenic beauty have been coming for years, but without looking at these visitors through the tourism lens, it is easy to miss the value and opportunity of the traffic that outdoor recreation is already generating, according to CRA. The group also draws an important distinction.
Depew’s group says “rural tourism is about the small, locally owned businesses that support families.”  “Urban tourism is mostly about big businesses creating low wage service industry jobs.”

They say the good news is that by building a tourism sector, a town is also implementing a business attraction strategy. And that’s where Cyndra Lorey, who’s group is responsible for economic development in the county, and the City of St. James, come into the picture. Typically, the RREC concentrates on industrial development, but “we had to take a look at the other things we (RREC) should be doing,” she says. “The Community Betterment group that has been visiting St. James was just blown away by our potential for tourism.” She says it was an “aha” moment because it took outsiders to get her to think about expanding the RREC responsibilities.

She sat down with Mayor White and City Administrator Harold Selby to discuss the possibilities. She says the St. James business owners have done a wonderful job creating and managing successful businesses, but that they may be missing the power of collective marketing. Hence, the new initiative.
“We think we can do a good job for the City of St. James,” she says. “Let’s play to our strengths.”

She explains that there are some real advantages for Phelps County. “The Rolla Chamber of Commerce promotes the assets of St. James, but could do more collectively. Referring to sales tax monies, she said “tourism is not something you can buy on the internet.” Quoting from some research by Oxford Economics, she said “destinations that have more tourist-centric businesses and opportunities, have proven to grow at a higher than average rate over the last decade. There is a 10 percent increase in a destination’s visitor-related employment relative to the U.S. average of one-and-a-half percent broader employment number."

That makes the point that not only is there an employment spike that is due to tourism-related monies, but that tourism itself is the driver above and beyond general employment.

Lorey shared part of a planning booklet with the meeting crowd that was put together by Atlas Advertising and included the new St. James Regional Tourism and Economic Development Committee members (appointed by the St. James City Council) along with general short and long term goals—the result of a committee-led marketing analysis. She says the plan stimulates original development, new economic activities and shapes the perception of the St. James community.

Goals to support and grow current businesses
Short term:
Identify a funding mechanism to support and sustain a marketing program and associated community development projects

Develop and implement a professional branded marketing plan that will promote the region and increase tourism related sales.

Obtain community “buy-in” and support for the concept of tourism as an economic driver.

Create a way to attract more “unplanned visitors off I-44 and draw them into area businesses.

Enhance outdoor recreation experiences and/or opportunities.

Long term:
Create and fund a full-time tourism position that is embedded into the community’s structure

Goals to build the future
Short term:
Attract and nurture additional businesses that will support and grow the brand into the downtown area.

Develop and implement an infrastructure plan that preserves our natural assets and suport the growth of the tourism cluster.

Long term:
Develop a downtown experience that integrates the area’s history and heritage.
Engage the Community Foundation in order to support the sustainability of tourism in St. James

“We already have an established niche that has grown organically,” Lorey notes. “We have the Meramec River, the Maramec Spring Park, the wineries, the brew pub, great restaurants and some downtown shops.” She says the Committee has applied for a grant through the Division of Tourism to determine the customers that will direct the marketing. The group has also listed St. James attractions on the Division of Tourism’s website and are looking at a new website for the Visitor’s Center.
“We’re very optimistic about the new and exciting things happening now.”