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Director: Southwest Kansas tourism flourishing

Published 4/2/2012 in Progress

By SHAJIA AHMAD

sahmad@gctelegram.com

There's plenty to see and do in southwest Kansas.

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Brad Nading/Telegram Scott City celebrated its All-America City designation with day-long events ranging from a downtown sidewalk sale to activites and games to a street dance. The community joins Fort Worth, Texas, and Fayetteville, N.C., as the 2011 winners for the annual community competition.

Brad Nading/Telegram Scott City celebrated its All-America City designation with day-long events ranging from a downtown sidewalk sale to activites and games to a street dance. The community joins Fort Worth, Texas, and Fayetteville, N.C., as the 2011 winners for the annual community competition.

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Brad Nading/Telegram Tourist activities signs are shown east of the U.S. Highway 50 and Towns Road intersection for westbound traffic to see.

Brad Nading/Telegram Tourist activities signs are shown east of the U.S. Highway 50 and Towns Road intersection for westbound traffic to see.

Garden City — the jewel of the southwest — has been a draw for travelers through the High Plains since the founding fathers first laid claim to the fertile river bottomland more than a century ago.

Today, annual festivals such as Beef Empire Days and the Mexican Fiesta, along with the community's mainstays — the Big Pool, Buffalo Dunes Golf Course and Lee Richardson Zoo — continue to pull in folks not only from surrounding counties but from other parts of the state, too.

And things are only looking up.

Convention and tourism in this corner of the state continues to flourish, according to Lynn Schoonover, director of the Finney County Convention and Tourism Bureau.

The independent entity, chartered by a Finney County resolution, has been raking in the transient guest tax receipts to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, signs of a healthy and growing patronage at area hotels and motels.

What's more, the CTB currently is hiring an event planner to grow its staff of two to three full-timers, to focus this upcoming year on a couple of initiatives: sports marketing and conferences or conventions.

"In order to grow and expand, we need that extra person to fill that role," Schoonover said.

Last year, the focus for Finney County was targeted marketing at in-state shows such as the state fair and various other trade shows around Kansas.

Finney County had a presence at several of those shows geared toward shoppers and hunters, for example, to tout to families looking for short trips or weekend vacations all that Garden City has to offer.

"We knew gas was high and funds were short," Schoonover said, referring to the continued sluggish economy and cash-strapped consumers.

This year, with the help of a full-time event planner, Schoonover said the CTB's goal is to solicit a greater number of sports events such as tournaments, partnering with groups such as the local school districts and municipal golf course professionals for access to venues and volunteers.

"There's so much more we can do and go after," Schoonover said, adding that tourism officials are also looking outside the box, such as for monster truck rallies and rodeos, which are huge target audiences in this part of the state.

Following the loss of the 3i Show last summer, a decades-old agricultural expo held biennially at the Finney County Fairgrounds, area county officials lamented the loss of the event that brought thousands of out-of-towners to the area.

In the wake of the loss — Dodge City is building a new facility to house the ag-expo permanently — officials began a discussion about what improvements could and should be made to the Finney County Exhibition Building, one of the largest and most used facilities in Garden City.

Some members of the public, in addition to some tourism officials, have expressed their desire to not only make improvements to the expo building known by the misnomer '3i Building,' but to build a brand new convention center, as well.

Schoonover said she agreed with residents who at a town hall meeting in January indicated Garden City needs such a place, even as a public venture.

"I do think we need a convention center-type facility," Schoonover said, adding that her office often gets outside requests for facilities to accommodate 500-plus member conventions.

Unfortunately, one of the major missing links is a facility that size that also boasts break-out rooms, she said, an integral piece to hosting a convention or conference of any size.

"I think we're getting closer," Schoonover said.

Then, there's also the internal tourism efforts across southwest Kansas.

Many smaller-sized communities hold their own when it comes to luring visitors and tourists.

In Scott County, where Lake Scott State Park brings recreational travelers from all over, tourism efforts also are brewing beyond the staple sightseeing.

Katie Eisenhour, an executive director of the Scott City Chamber of Commerce, said her organization has taken on the role of tourism development over the past few years, from sponsoring local events to taking part in their promotions.

"The promotion of our area is critical to the community's success," Eisenhour said. "Last year, we had a booth at the Garden City Home and Garden Show. We were surprised by the number of people who knew about Scott City, but didn't know about Lake (Scott), and many people who knew about the lake but who never really stopped into town."

Scott City's marketing efforts also have been bolstered, Eisenhour said, due to the city's recent naming as an All-America City, a title bestowed last summer by the National Civic League, which awards 10 communities across the nation the title each year.

"Tourism is working for our community, (and) we've also learned that the chamber and tourism and economic development all need to work together to create that success," Eisenhour said.

In Ulysses, which sits near the historic Santa Fe Trail and boasts an accredited Grant County Historic Museum, visitors also are lured from all over the state and country, according to Lynda Fort, a local tourism chairwoman.

Some of those draws include small-town shopping and oil and gas business interests in addition to Ulysses' mainstays: an 18-hole golf course and recreation lake. But those draws to the community also include more unique endeavors, such as hunting and bird-watching, according to the tourism chairwoman.

"We pull in from all over the state. We bring hunting people in from Maine and Chicago and Dallas and Oklahoma City. ... Pheasant Fest is a big thing down here," Fort said. "We're pretty proud of our community and what we've been able to do through harmony and planning."

As for Garden City, making the gem of the southwest a destination attraction continues to be at the top of the priority list.

"We're excited and thrilled to death," Schoonover said. "We see the opportunities and possibilities."

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