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Tourism team sees a future for Effingham in promoting its past
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Bruce Green from the Georgia Department of Economic Developments tourism office goes over the tourism resource teams plan to an almost capacity crowd at the county administrative complex Thursday night. The team visited Effingham County late last year. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

Armed with a report weighing in at nine pounds and 130 pages, Effingham County tourism promoters were heartened to hear what a state team had to say about the county’s potential.

The Effingham County Tourism Resource Team, which toured the county in November, presented its report Thursday to a nearly full house at the county administrative complex. The team, comprised of members of the state Department of Economic Development, the Department of Natural Resources’ Historic Preservation Division and the Department of Community Affairs and private enterprise associates, was glowing in its outlook for Effingham’s tourism future.

“The potential for tourism to expand in Effingham County is very real,” said Bruce Green, tourism product development director for the Department of Economic Development.

Effingham has sites and events that could draw a strong interest from tourists interested in cultural and historic sites. Of particular note was the December 1864 incident at Ebenezer Creek, where several hundred slaves were following the Union Army as it advanced on Savannah. The Union general in charge of the advance, Gen. Jefferson C. Davis, had the pontoon bridge across the creek destroyed after his men crossed.

With the Confederate cavalry on their heels, hundreds of slaves attempted the cross the creek swollen with floodwaters and many drowned.

Green believes the tragedy at Ebenezer Creek could be a huge draw for the county’s tourism.

“They will come by the hundreds,” he said. “Ain’t nobody got the story you’ve got right here.”

Said Barry Brown, heritage tourism specialist: “The site, if it can be reached, has wonderful interpretative possibilities. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a world historic site. If you make it accessible, interpret it, people will come to see it.”

Leslie Breland, cultural tourism specialist for the Department of Economic Development, revealed her thoughts during the team’s tour as they walked the same path as the freed slaves who ultimately drowned in the creek.

“These two stories Effingham County owns,” she said, also referencing the landing of the Salzburgers and the introduction of continental European life to the colony. “It happened here and both with significant impact on American history. Making these stories come alive with audio tours bring to life that experience. I know how I felt walking down that path.

“But that’s not all there is in Effingham County,” she said. “Historic homes and buildings are what the cultural tourist likes to see.”

How to take advantage

Resource team members also spelled out the benefits of historic preservation, downtown development and cultural tourism and what it will take to tap into those. Cindy Eidson, Office of Downtown Development manager for the Department of Community Affairs, implored hiring a downtown development director for Guyton and Springfield. The cities could share the position, which could be akin to “a circuit-riding professional,” she said.

 “You’ve got to get motivated and get an operational budget,” she said.

Eidson also called for creating a downtown development authority and perhaps using Georgia’s Main Street Program as a blueprint.

She also said the cities could look for projects to complete first and then line up potential funding sources.

“We can be creative,” she said. “Oh yeah, we can be creative.”

Carole Moore, grants coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources’ Historic Preservation Division, pointed out there are grants and tax incentives available for historic preservation initiatives. Among the first orders of business are identifying potential historic sites, enacting historic preservation ordinances and establishing historic preservation commissions.

Many grants do not cover bricks and mortar projects now, she said, but may do so in a couple of years.

Resource team members also urged the use of partnerships in the community, from the public and private sectors, to boost and finance tourism projects.

“Partnerships are essential, between agencies, organizations and people,” said Breland. “Tourism is about inclusion, bringing together all facets of your community, all ages, ethnicities, capabilities and interests. You have a story to tell.”

Green said the team’s report is a three- to four-year strategy. Typically, the team delivers recommendations and suggestions for a two-year period.

Stringent economic conditions, however, could mean some of those goals aren’t accomplished as quickly as usual.

“But realistically, there are things in here you could be working on a three, four or five-year period,” he said. “We understand we are all living in very challenging economic times. There is only so much money that anyone has.”

‘Sell, sell, sell’

Green also exhorted the community to market itself and sell itself, in more ways than one. With a small bottle of Ebenezer Creek water in hand — members of the Effingham Convention and Visitors Bureau distributed similar bottles to state lawmakers last week — Green pleaded with the community to “sell it, sell it, sell it.”

“Do not give it away; sell it,” he said. “People will buy it. You’ve got the story. You’ve got to package it. Sell it, sell it, sell it — don’t give it away. Stop giving it away. You’ve got something of value here.”

Eidson also pushed selling local products in stores, especially the Ebenezer water as a souvenir if nothing else.

“Sell local products,” she said. “Now you can sell the bottled water in your storefronts. Start selling some local products in your businesses. Do it. People want that.”

Team members also recommended better signs telling travelers where Effingham is and how to get to it. Green also believes the community needs someone to push tourism in Effingham County.

“You have to have somebody who wakes up thinking about selling Effingham County and somebody who goes to bed thinking about selling Effingham County,” he said. “They have to travel. They have to get out there. If you want this county to continue to grow, you have to hire somebody to do it.”

And getting the word out about Effingham County could lure visitors during their stays in Savannah.

“A $1 billion empire is right down the road,” Green said. “The first challenge is to teach them where Effingham County is. Twenty minutes down the road is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the country. You’ve got to get some of those people to come up here. They are dropping $1 billion a year right there in Savannah and Chatham County. How do we get a piece of that?”

Green also pushed the use of social media and called for an Effingham tourism Facebook page to raise the county’s profile.

“I’ve been traveling the state the last couple of years with Bruce and the team,” Brown said, “and y’all have more layers of rich history here than any other county in the state, with the possible exception of Chatham. You have a lot of things people will want to pay to see and a lot of them that aren’t being taken advantage of.”

Some of the sites, such as the original Ebenezer settlement and the incident at Ebenezer Creek, are on private property, and the community needs to bridge partnerships to make those sites accessible to tourists, team members said.

Breland pointed out the community isn’t ready to handle a wave of tourists right now. It lacks the restaurants and hotels needed. But the report and its recommendations were gladly received.

“I think this is going to be an important road map for us,” said county Commissioner Vera Jones.

Sherry Loper of the Effingham CVB also was enthused not only by the report but by the turnout to hear what the team had to say.

“The turnout was phenomenal,” she said. “Everyone was very pleased. The CVB has been working with this group for five or six years. We’re excited about this report. If everyone works together, we can pretty much accomplish what we put our minds to.”