Wisconsin Tourism Secretary-designee Sara Meaney stopped in Rhinelander Friday morning, visiting ArtStart and the Pioneer Park Historical Complex, as part of a tour of the state in observance of National Travel and Tourism Week.
The Rhinelander stop was a chance for Meaney to spotlight how well the state's tourism industry is doing, following the announcement earlier this month that tourism accounted for $21.6 billion in 2018.
ArtStart Community Cultural Development Director Melinda Childs gave Meaney a quick rundown of the history of ArtStart, which is one of the organizers of the Project North festival to be held throughout Rhinelander September 26-29. The festival was recently a recipient of a $14,690 Tourism Joint Effort Marketing (JEM) Grant.
"We look to Project North as our future, and it is our opportunity to share what we love about Rhinelander," Childs said. "And we do that through art and music."
Meaney said it is the efforts of groups like ArtStart and area chambers of commerce that have helped the state's efforts to provide a wide range of events that attract visitors not only to the state but specifically to the Northwoods.
"It's great to see arts and environment and culture and community come together like that." Meaney said. "And that's what makes a place a great destination for visitors as well."
Cultural events also attract people to relocate to the area, she added.
"The better the place to live, the better the place to visit," Meaney said, adding that the work of groups like ArtStart can only have positive impacts on the community.
Meaney noted tourism has an impact on the local economy too, totaling $237.4 million in direct visitor spending last year, according to the department's figures.
"In Oneida County alone, there was an increase in direct spending by visitors of over 3.3 percent, so that's a wonderful lift over 2017," she said. "Which is the right direction, right?"
An increase in tourism means an increase in jobs, totaling 199,000 full and part-time jobs in 2018, with 1 in 13 jobs in the state sustained by tourism, Meaney added.
"So we take it very seriously that the work we do is people's livelihoods, it's also people's lifestyle," she said. "This is where we live, we chose to live where we love to live, and that translates really well into why people want to come visit and spend time and hard- earned money on a vacation."
She reiterated that it was the work of chambers of commerce, visitors' bureaus and local organizations working with the department of tourism that has led to continued growth in tourism statewide.
"This is really the heart of the tourism industry," Meaney observed. "The opportunity I get in this role is just incredible, we get to spread really good news and we get to celebrate what is great about our state and we get to try and entice more people to come and spend more time here."
She said the state has learned that tourism is good investment.
"Every dollar we spend on promoting the state returns $7 in tax revenue back to the state and to its residents," Meaney said. "That would mean $680 out of every household in the state would have to be added as an expenditure if the tourism contribution in taxes were not there. So we know that is important to everybody's bottom line."
When asked about Gov. Tony Evers' proposal to create an office in the department of tourism that would focus exclusively on outdoor recreation, Meaney said she was onboard with the idea.
"Outdoor recreation is actually the number one marketable reason that people come to Wisconsin as a visitor," she said. "But it's more than just spending time outside, it's about having a really diverse experience, being able to experience cultural organizations, art experiences and enjoying the environment. So taking care of the environment and ensuring that we're good stewards is an important piece of the governor's intention, and the budget speaks to that."
Creating an outdoor recreation arm of the tourism department is something other states have found to be successful and more are studying the option, she added.
"What that means is bringing public and private partnerships together, as well as non-profits, community groups and other organizations to actually combine those efforts rather than us all running around in different directions and touting our outdoor recreation," Meaney said. "We know it's a huge strength of what we already do; the governor acknowledges that by setting that aside in the budget."
At the same time, Meaney said the goal is to draw more people into outdoor recreation activities in the state while still being good stewards of the environment.
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at jamie@rivernewsonline .com.
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