Back in June, Iron County’s Newspaper, The Mountain Echo, printed an article about our new Director of Economic Development and Tourism, Robin Coventry. The article was quickly followed by a poll asking The Mountain Echo’s readers to weigh in on the importance of tourism in terms of our economic development. More than half of those who answered the survey believe that tourism is very important. I realize that I am in the minority, but I do not think that tourism will solve the economic problems that we have in Iron County.
I will admit that tourism sounds like a good way to promote economic development. We do have a lot of outdoor recreational activities in and around Iron County. However, these activities are situational and seasonal. I don’t understand how we can expect to employ large numbers of people in jobs that are only situational and seasonal. How can people make enough money to take care of themselves and their families if they can only work from Memorial Day to Labor Day? They can’t… and that is one reason why I think that tourism will not help to solve our economic problems.
Increased tourism will benefit some of Iron County’s citizens. I imagine that those who own small businesses in the Valley might see an increase in their bottom line during the peak tourist season. However, will that increase in the bottom line enable them to provide their employees with full time yearlong employment at a living wage with health benefits and a retirement plan? Or will it just allow these select few people to increase their profits or keep their businesses afloat? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see anything wrong with putting policies in place that will keep these small businesses in business. However, I think that it is disingenuous to make the claim that tourism will help the overall economy of Iron County.
Let’s do what Albert Einstein called “a thought experiment.” Let’s image that a medium sized company was contemplating setting up a manufacturing company like St. Francis County’s Ozark Steel, or even a telecommunications company like Accent Marketing, in the Arcadia Valley. What do you think that the people in charge of choosing a location for that company will look at first? If you guessed demographic information you would be right. With high speed internet, you can call up the demographic data for Iron County in less than a minute and analyze the statistics yourself.
I imagine that the folks in charge of this imaginary manufacturing or telecommunications center would look at the low tax rates that we have on property in Iron County and think that setting up shop here would be a great move. They also might look at the per capita income (about 16k) and think that hiring workers here in Iron County would be a really great opportunity for them. The cost of living is relatively cheap (housing costs well below the national average, etc.) and the median income and per capita income is among the lowest in the region. The folks in charge of this relocation would likely think that the cost of labor would be inexpensive compared to other potential locations and that the people who got jobs at this new facility would consider working there a blessing.
Just when Iron County was looking like the best place to build this facility, these folks would get a look at our education data. Only about 65% of Iron County’s citizens over the age of 25 have a high school diploma. While I have met folks who seemed to be intelligent and didn’t have a high school diploma, like it or not, a high school diploma is pretty significant in terms of a potential employer’s ability to see if a potential employee can be trained to do a job. For many employers, a high school diploma suggests competency and those that don’t have one are often seen as being uneducable. Do you believe that a company would relocate here if they believed that more than 35% of their potential employees were uneducable?
We don’t need any more sound and fury about tourism in our community. Tourists will not fix the systemic problems that were created when the mines closed and the shoe factory closed. No matter how many people come here to visit, we are not going to be able to hire enough Park Rangers and Tour Guides to make up for the lack of manufacturing jobs that we lost in the last two decades of the twentieth century. What we do need is for everyone in our community to really get behind the idea of educating ourselves and our children and investing in ourselves and our children.
Instead of sinking a lot of money into tourism, maybe we would be better off spending some of it on community education. Maybe we should seek out those who failed at school (or feel that the schools failed them) and help them to get a GED and maybe even learn a trade at the local community college. The only reason that we sing the mantra of tourism in the first place is because we know that many of us living in Iron County don’t have much disposable income. Too many of us are just trying to keep the lights on.
A highly educated workforce might change that and more of us could afford to be tourists in our own community. Imagine how much easier it would be to go after the tourist dollars of those who already lived here instead of having to go after the tourist dollars of those living in St. Louis. Short of a sustained effort in community education, I do not see any substantial impact on our economy. Those who like to sing the mantra of tourism can go on doing it if they wish, but I do have one request: If we go on singing this mantra of tourism and nothing changes by the time the 2020 census comes out, can we get everyone to lie and say they have a diploma?
The Mountain Echo
US Census Data