It’s time to talk about local tourism, which may not make me any friends. This is the blog post where I’ll be hailed as a genius, a deranged busybody, or a heretic. I’m coming up on my first year anniversary of living in Hanna, so these are the thoughts of a newly minted citizen on the town and some initiatives I’ve been witness to.
Where things stand right now
Hanna has been struggling with declining population numbers like every other small town in Alberta as of late. People are heading to the larger centres and leaving some noticeable gaps in once more populous rural areas. This has manifested as some run down and abandoned homes around town, particularly on the east side, and the downtown core is showing some obvious signs of depression. There are too many places that won’t rent or sell, too many empty spaces that need filling.
There are numerous efforts at both the regional and municipal levels to try and attract both tourists and new citizens to Hanna. Today I’ll be talking about tourism.
Bang for your buck from tourist attractions
When faced with this problem in the region I lived in before, I analyzed the issue and broke it down into these areas that I feel need to be taken into account when building any new tourist attraction. Each of these is a yes or no proposition. Each yes counts as one point. The higher the score, the higher overall value a project holds.
- Is your special event a recurring event? Events eat up precious resources in terms of money, materials, and volunteer hours (paid hours, too). Once you’ve organized the first event, the fact is that you’re 75% of the way towards organizing a follow-up event. Why not make your “one-off” event an annual or bi-annual event instead? This may not make sense when you’re setting up something like a centennial celebration, but it’s something to consider.
- Is your event or attraction unique? Our neighbour Drumheller ‘owns’ dinosaurs and they’re leveraging it for all they’re worth. The town of Vulcan has become a mecca for Trekkies and Trekkers (don’t call one group the other name — it riles them). Before putting something together, make sure it’s not being done by someone else.
- Is your event or attraction a good travel value proposition? There is nothing more frustrating than driving for ten hours to a holiday or leisure destination to find that there is not more than two or three hours of recreation waiting for you. That’s a bad travel to fun ratio. Doubly so if you made the trip as a family with young children. Whatever you plan should offer more leisure time than travel time or you won’t earn good word of mouth or repeat business.
- Are you leveraging existing infrastructure or locales? Organizing a convention or tournament is difficult without enough accommodation in terms of hotel rooms or camping spots nearby. Or good shopping and dining.
- Are you leveraging nearby events and attractions? If people are driving four hours to spend a day at a neighbouring event, why not offer them another day’s recreation for an additional hour of driving to your town? When nearby communities work together to overcome the travel value proposition, everyone wins, including the tourists. Look for opportunities to partner with nearby towns and villages, and to plan events together in clumps. Maximize entertainment value for your visitors.
- Will your attraction be attractive to your neighbours? Those who live closest to your community are the low-hanging fruit of the tourism industry. They don’t have to travel far and they are quite happy to come back often if they feel they have been treated and entertained well. Good neighbours can certainly make for good business.
- Does your attraction develop infrastructure for locals? The 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta were considered successful because they turned a profit. The real success in the minds of the locals was the infrastructure that was left in place afterwards for athletes to use and enjoy. A tourist attraction that attracts tourists and also provides recreation for locals is win-win.
- Are you leveraging your town/area’s history and traditions? Every area has a history and story worth sharing. What’s your community’s story?
- Can your project be developed using local expertise? While there are some occasions where you’ll need to hire outside knowledge, keep in mind that high-priced consultants who live outside of your community represent an exodus of your community’s resources elsewhere. Whenever possible, try to leverage local knowledge, local expertise, and keep your dollars working in your own community (or, at worst, one nearby).
- Will your local employment/volunteer pool support your event/attraction? Tourism requires not only a large enough employment pool to draw from, but also a varied pool of volunteers. Volunteers are prone to burnout so be aware of projects that can’t be staffed easily or that rely too heavily on the efforts of too few volunteers. If this is a problem, look for projects that lean more towards being self-serve for visitors.
What we’re doing right
I’ve already written about Prairie Oasis, a local attraction that is absolutely fantastic. It’s one of those local success stories that can’t be shared enough. Blood Indian Reservoir is also quite close and is a wonderfully well-maintained fishing spot with an excellent reputation. Here in Hanna we have a very nicely maintained eighteen hole golf course that seems to attract its own share of tourists if the number of RVs parked next to it are any indication. Our local historical village and museum is also a well-run attraction that I consistently hear good feedback about.
Our swimming pool is very recent and well maintained, a great place to drop the kids for a couple of hours while making a few rounds of the golf course. There are some good dining options in place and more on the way once Tim Horton’s opens its door here.
Good camping and boating withing a stone’s throw of town means that Hanna really is, like our town motto says, “worth the drive!”
Where we’re headed
A lot of energy over the past few years has gone into re-branding Hanna as a Railtown. Our tourist information booth by highway nine is an old train station that was moved to the edge of town and tastefully refurbished to include an ice cream shoppe and a lovely park complete with a train caboose to enjoy your treat in. We also have one of the very few surviving round houses in Canada, a facility for repairing engines and rail cars. It, unfortunately, has fallen into disrepair and the surviving portions of the structure require extensive renovation. We have a second train station as a feature in the town’s historical village, along with another caboose in excellent condition.
The Railtown theming leans heavily on the town’s historical railroad heritage, which began with Canadian National establishing the round house for repairing engines. This history is being brought to life through a much ballyhooed ‘feud’ between the Hannas (railroaders) and the Parkers (ranchers) that was settled with a wedding between members of the two families. This wedding was re-enacted earlier this year and will likely be re-enacted again in the future.
So massive props are owed to locals who have rolled up their sleeves over the past decade to try and make the town a more attractive place for visitors to spend time and money in. They’ve already accomplished some great things.
I realize I’m coming into this as a rank newbie, but I’ve been looking at where the town is headed and some issues stood out to me right away. I apologize to anyone who is offended by my habit of thinking ‘out loud’, but here goes…
- Derailed! I’m guessing that no one really had any idea back when the whole Railtown concept was adopted that Hanna would be without railroad tracks in a few years. There is an inherent difficulty in presenting oneself as a rail destination without actual … rails. Said rails having been torn out several years ago.
- Seeing double. Another problem is that there is already another Railtown in Central Alberta, and that’s Stettler, about 90 minutes drive away to the northwest. More of a challenge to us, they still have a functioning rail system that they are able to use as a tourist attraction, offering old style train runs between Stettler and the neighbouring village of Big Valley. Stettler has also made great strides in theming their downtown with a railway feel by putting in new sidewalks that resemble train tracks. I’m not sure our round house can compete with their working trains, which are much more exciting to young children.
- Outside expertise? It appears that an outside consulting firm is heavily involved in promoting Hanna as a Railtown. I am always opposed to this as, if nothing else, this is money I feel should be kept in the area. I question the value of ‘expertise’ that encourages our town to compete with a neighbouring community for a similar designation. Whatever history we may have, we lack the infrastructure — functioning rail infrastructure — to compete with Stettler as a destination for rail enthusiasts. Our most notable historical structure, the round house, will need many years of work and many many dollars before it is complete. And when it is, what kind of travel value proposition can it offer against what Stettler has? (Train rides!)
An immodest proposal
The fact is that Hanna has invested too much time and money into becoming a Railtown, so there’s no point in trying to switch tracks now (if you’ll pardon the pun). Plenty of blood, sweat and tears have been poured into this project. Money, too. Any changes that are made should honour and build on previous work done by those members of the community who stepped up in a big way. Volunteers are the lifeblood of any community and it’s not ever acceptable to slap them in the face by suddenly discontinuing a project they’ve put years into.
I’ve been trying to brainstorm the best and quickest uses for the round house and a way to fill up the empty spots in town. Here’s what I was able to come up with:
No, really. I’ve looked and looked and can’t find a single mini-golf themed town in all of Canada. We would be unique. Further to this, I would try to keep it in step with the Railtown efforts by ensuring that every hole in town had a railroad theme, period. Ideally, I would like to see every small course representing important bits of railway history, Canadian and American. The town not only becomes a mini-golf course, but also a sort of interpretive centre as each hole tells a railroad story.
This leaves our round house, which will eventually be our heavyweight railroad attraction. If we can get the roof patched up enough, some power put in, and decent enough porta-potties lined up at the back I’m thinking live theatre (credit for the idea going to my wife). The middle section of the round house has an old auction ring (installed after it ceased to be a railroad facility) with seating that looks like it could be fixed up enough to be usable again. Put in some basic lighting and an inexpensive sound system and you have a venue for live performances during the warmer months. Again, in keeping with the Railtown theme, I would suggest rail-themed performances. Some examples:
- Murder on the Orient Express
- Strangers On a Train
- Two Trains Running
- Hanna/Parker Wedding: The Musical (hey, why not?!?)
Etcetera. Here’s why I think a combination of mini-golf around town and live theatre in the round house could work, particularly if we keep everything train themed…
- If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. We’re not going to be able to outdo Stettler as a Railtown, but we can partner with them to increase the travel value proposition for families. Let’s encourage our tourists to also visit Stettler and vice versa. No reason why we can’t work together on this.
- Same theme, different activities. Stettler isn’t a mini-golf town or particularly known for live theatre. We can work together to promote our local rail heritage without having to compete directly.
- No more empty spaces. The gaps in the main drag in town are about as comely as the gaps in the teeth of a homeless person. There are also some gross spots on 1st Ave and Railway Avenue is, well, narsty. There are also some buildings that — being honest here — need to be pushed into a hole and a jerry can of gas and a match tossed in after them. Let’s take those lemons and make lemonade. Some elbow grease, some repurposed materials, some paint, and some noise on social media… We’re a mini-golf town. Why not? What would be cooler than an attractive looking railway themed mini-golf course on Railway Ave especially?
- Local employment and sales opportunities. It’s going to take some money to put together a town-wide mini-golf course. I’d rather see the money we’re spending on the external consultant going to local businesses for lumber, paint, nails, welding, etc. Maybe those who own unused property can earn some tax credits for converting it to part of the tourist theme/dream.
- Leveraging local fine arts. A new fine-arts facility will be part of the JCC modernization. In addition to this, the school is putting additional focus on drama and fine arts courses. These students will certainly benefit from being able to perform to the public from a new venue. And just imagine what Stage Hanna could do with it!
- Good clean fun for the whole family. While mom and dad are hitting the big golf links in town, the kids can putt their way through the themed rail courses instead. If they get tired of golf we have an awesome pool they can spend time in.
- Hanna is already a golf crazy town. The first thing I had to learn when driving around town last fall was watch for golf carts. It is apparently a thing for locals to cruise from their homes in town to the golf course in their golf courts. The police don’t seem to mind and everyone is happy. You know that there would be plenty of locals having fun putting it up and chatting it up with the tourists.
- Make it a day trip. We’d also attract plenty of day-trippers from Drumheller, Stettler, and Calgary, which are all within a reasonable drive. We have plenty of excellent camping, boating, fishing, and swimming, so a niche activity like this only adds to our day trip value.
- Recurring, timed events. We can offer annual tournaments and theatre festivals that coincide with competitions and other plays in the area (e.g. the annual Bunnock tourney in Consort or Badlands performances in Drumheller). Why not encourage tourists to make a series of stops on their way through Special Areas?
- Pay as you go. Turning a town into a mini-golf mecca doesn’t have to be done all at once. It can be done in phases, although I’d suggest that the spaces that are the biggest eyesores be converted first.
- Getting the round house up and running ASAP. Right now the round house doesn’t offer much as a tourist attraction. It’s big, it’s empty, and it’s dirty. You can see everything there is to see in about fifteen minutes and you’re done. It’s not something people are going to pay to visit, at least not at present. Getting a summer theatre program running there would likely be easier and cheaper than trying to build the interpretive centre everyone agrees they want. Once the theatre is running it could definitely help finance the next phases of the restoration project, which needs to happen. This is a wonderful building that everyone wants to see restored as soon as possible.
- 10/10 score. Remember my bang for your tourism buck list? My ideas regarding both mini-golf and turning a portion of the round house into a performance venue satisfy my criteria, which I think is awesome. Not that I’m biased or anything like that.
These are my thoughts on building up Hanna as a Railtown, but in a way that differentiates us from Stettler, who we will not be able to compete with on equal terms. I apologize if it turns out that I don’t have all the facts or I’ve mistakenly misrepresented things. This is what I’ve been able to piece together from a year’s worth of discussions about the direction tourism is heading in Hanna, something that I as a landscape photographer who is thinking of offering photography workshops has an interest in. Thinking out loud is what I do and my blog is where I sometimes do it.
I’m looking forward to a spirited discussion.