Over the last few years, Jeff Boothby has led the Anson County Tourism Development Authority in a push to boost and promote tourism within the county. Starting this month, Boothby plans to support the board as it continues its efforts — but from the sidelines as he steps down from his position as chairman.
Boothby joined the board in 2010 or 2011, becoming vice-chairman in about 2012 or 2013. He served as chairman from then until the end of June.
He’s not sure of the exact dates as the board has switched offices a few times and records have been in storage. He said he may be the longest-serving chairman the board has had since it was founded in 2000.
Since he’s been on the board, Boothby said he has seen a lot of progress towards increasing tourism.
He believes Anson is a diamond in the rough, with a wealth of perhaps generally-undervalued assets: U.S. Highways 74 and 52, the Pee Dee River and Blewett Falls, membership in the Uwharrie tourism forum, Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge, Twin Valley Country Club, the Ansonia Theatre and more. The theater alone brings about 10,000 people to the county per year to see shows, he said.
Now that the board has joined the regional tourism forum and has increased its cooperation with other county organizations, Boothby said it is time to begin promoting what the county has to attract tourists.
“Even if they won’t stay overnight, they can come through Anson County and stop to eat, get some gas, etc.,” he said. The billboards the organization is working to install will promote county events in the eastern and western ends of the county. He hopes motorists going to the beach or mountains for a trip may be tempted to return to the county for a festival, rodeo or other event.
He has high hopes for the planned Agri-Civic Center. The facility is still in the fundraising stage, and has been designed to have the space to host a variety of events. If a business holds a training there, or a conference, Boothby believes the guests will visit local attractions, eat from restaurants within the county, and stay in hotels in the county. While the county has a few small B&Bs and motels, it doesn’t yet have a larger chain hotel, but Boothby hopes to see that change soon if demand for lodging increases with guests interested in staying overnight for events at the new center or elsewhere.
Even those who aren’t interested in coming to Anson for an overnight trip or attending events may be interested in visiting if the county promotes what it already has, he said.
“Come out and enjoy the beautiful country roads we have, old silos, farmhouses, the general history we have,” Boothby said. “We’re now seeing some of the history signs we have going up in the county.”
Boothby acknowledged that besides a lack of marketing, visitors may be skipping Anson because the attractions it does have aren’t accessible.
“We have hidden gems everybody knows about, but not everybody knows how to access,” he said.
Blewett Falls Lake in Lilesville has few signs directing guests to the lake. Boothby’s fellow board member Elizabeth Schafer has pointed out how difficult it can be to find trails in the wildlife refuge, and the hesitance hikers may have to take the trail when there’s no indication of miles at the trail head or a detailed map available. The recently-finished blueway lacks signs indicating some of the kayak ramps or takeout points along the river.
In the next five years, Boothby expects to see tourism within the county improving.
“When I got on the board in 2010 or 2011, we were still feeling serious effects of the recession,” Boothby said. “We haven’t gotten back to pre-recession levels in the tourism industry, but we have seen significant improvement.”
With the addition of the paddle trail, Agri-Civic Center and other initiatives, Boothby thinks the county is heading in the right direction.
Threats to tourism
If there is another recession, Anson’s tourism industry likely won’t escape it. But he hopes it will be able to avoid the worst and rebuild quickly, especially given the amount of beach traffic that goes through each year.
Some residents have complained to the county and at a recent listening session for a proposed anaerobic digester, saying that the facility or the number of poultry houses may or do cause unattractive smells.
Boothby said landowners may want to avoid buying or building a house next to those facilities, but he doesn’t see them affecting tourism in the county.
“If you have a farm with a poultry farm next to it and want to have a B&B with outdoor events, that’s probably not the best place for it,” he said. “But we are an agricultural county, and forestry second.”
The abundance of agricultural pursuits in the county can serve as a positive factor as the board promotes agri-tourism.
“If there is a potential impact, it would give a chance to educate people who know nothing about agriculture or anything like that,” Boothby said. “Yeah, when they spread manure it’s smelly, but it’s temporary and sustainable.”
While Anson does have a crime problem (the county had the second-highest number of meth lab busts in the state last year), Boothby believes it has been reduced recently.
“Sheriff (Landric) Reid and (Wadesboro Police) Chief (Thedis) Spencer, in my opinion, have done a very good job,” Boothby said. “We don’t have the hugely obvious negative things going on. Think back a few years ago to the shootout at the courthouse, and before that, to the big homeless problem — not a local problem, but people wandering the highway. We didn’t have the population to help them and had to go to the state because we had some serious issues. And the drug problem we’ve all seen here, and in every community. Law enforcement has done a good job taking that off the forefront.”
Previously, residents parking along U.S. Highway 74 was an issue, but he hasn’t seen it happen recently, making it a “much more inviting” road to travel.
While Anson faces challenges building up tourism, he sees no unmanageable threats.
“We’re relatively fortunate here lately,” Boothby said. “Other than the economy, there’s not a lot of serious negative issues that we see. The hardest part is that we’re a rural county with an agriculture and forestry-related economy; that is, we’re kind of a poor county. Truly. We’re a Tier 1 county and that poses a challenge because we don’t have the funding that a lot of other places do.”
One potential issue he sees is the fact that Anson is still a dry county.
Anson has “basic” attractions and some businesses, but growth may be limited if the county’s alcohol laws aren’t changed.
“Ohers like a winery, outdoor concert venues, things associated with more of the social side of things — whether you agree with it or not, until there’s an ABC referendum in the county, they’re not viable options,” Boothby said. “Whether we agree with it or not, people wanting to do those or go to a winery, we have to have an ABC referendum. People coming here come from areas where that’s commonplace and expect to be able to have beer or wine at a wedding, or a conference for a bigger company may be doing retreat for employees.”
Potential business owners interested in wineries have turned away once they realized the county was dry, he said.
A referendum for unfortified beer and wine was placed on the ballot in 2014, but it wasn’t promoted well and was confusing, he said. The referendum should be for all alcohol rather than specifying “fortified” or “unfortified.”
“I’d like to have a referendum on the ballot, because people will decide,” Boothby said. “We have a republic. There are advantages to sometimes just our elected officials making decisions, but when this does fall where a lot of people’s opposition falls on moral side, or of faith and religion,” the county deserves a vote, he said.
“It’s not really our place to tell everyone else what they can do, but it certainly is our right to vote on it and our individual choice has merit,” he said.
In 2014, the tourism board voted whether to support the referendum. Boothby said the board would likely due this again if an alcohol referendum appears on the ballot for 2018, the earliest date the commissioners said they would allow it. Boothby believes business owners will push to make sure it is on the ballot as soon as possible.
Even with a comparatively small budget, the board has made progress.
“As the TDA, we have very ample funding for what we’re doing right now,” Boothby said. “We’ve been able to take the $40,900 we’ve had the last two or three years and expand the events we were able to fund, join the regional forum, actively participate in and help fund the wayfinding and branding, been able to support our ‘ABC’ organizations and marketing efforts. So even though we may not have a budget that’s six or seven figures like many of our neighbors, we’ve been able to utilize the very modest budget we have with money from our five tax-paying lodging facilities.”
Boothby said that the “ABC” organizations, as he calls them — the variety of organizations, many commonly known by their acronyms, within the county promoting beautification efforts, increasing tourism, and brainstorming for ideas to boost the quality of life in the county— have partnered more to help the overall push to boost the economy.
Those organizations will be key in helping to identify and develop places to attract both tourists and potential residents.
“It’s nice to see that we have a lot of what Millennials are looking for,” Boothby said, adding that some private landowners are considering creating agri-tourism businesses. Those could range from farm tours to zip line courses, he said.
“Agri-tourism in Anson County covers so many things,” he said. “That general idea is so diverse in its own right — pick-your-own farms, corn mazes, wineries, farms that may take an old barn or house and fix it up for a venue, traditional agri-tourism like hunting preserves. I work with clients in Union County doing a zip line course in a managed forest, so there’s a lot of things that agri-tourism covers. And it really comes down to savvy farmer-entrepreneurs saying, ‘I think I can make this work.’ That’s the American Dream right there: if you have an idea for a business and think it’s viable, you have every right to pursue that dream.”
Both tourists and employees coming to the area may find that attractive.
“It’s been nice to see that the new assets we’ve been able to encourage and help build are what the big spenders, the adults, are looking to have,” Boothby said. “Which means that as businesses come here looking to hire between (the ages of) 18-40, they’re more likely to want to live here than say another county without rivers, a place to hike on public land, or to go on a hunting preserve.”
Boothby has seen a variety of tourism efforts in his years on the board and is looking forward to the future. Lewis Evans will serve as board chairman and Melanie Countee as vice-chairman.
“I’m just thankful that I had the opportunity to serve our community as the chairman of the tourism board,” Boothby said. “I feel as if we made a lot of progress in the right direction and hope that momentum will continue. I know with Lewis and Melanie as chair and vice-chair, we have some dedicated folks there that will put in time as needed to help our tourism economy. I’d also like to thank the commissioners for all their support because we couldn’t have done much of anything we’ve done without their support. And for everyone else that helps with tourism in the county, I thank them for their time and love of the county like we have.”
Reach reporter Imari Scarbrough at 704-994-5471 and follow her on Twitter @ImariScarbrough.