Tourism — and its effect on area businesses — was the main topic of Wednesday’s Richmond Hill/Bryan County Chamber of Commerce Lunch and Learn at the City Center.
Most of the focus of the event was on the Henry Ford attractions around the city and how Richmond Hill can benefit from them — especially this year, which is the 150th birthday of Ford’s wife, Clara.
Christy Sherman, the Richmond Hill Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director and Richmond Hill Historical Society president, opened the event with an overview of the city’s attractions, including the Henry Ford Museum, Ford’s barbershop and the Martha-Mary Chapel on Ford Avenue. She also discussed the Historical Society’s new partnership with the Henry Ford Heritage Association, which includes other Ford-centric historic groups around the country.
Cheryl Hargrave of the Georgia Department of Economic Development then discussed the economic importance of tourism in the state. Tourism had a $57.1 billion total impact in Georgia last year, which was up 6.7 percent from 2014. That resulted in $2.8 billion in state and local tax revenue, 425,000 jobs and state and local tax savings of $767 per household.
Domestic travel expenditures in Bryan County increased each year from 2009 to 2014, to a high of $41.8 million in 2014. When visitors come to the coastal region, 24 percent of them go to historic sites. Hargrave cited the coast visitors’ love of heritage sites as “good news” for Richmond Hill.
Mark Campbell, the secretary-treasurer of the Henry Ford Heritage Association in Michigan and a great-great-nephew of Clara Ford, gave a presentation on the history and importance of Henry Ford to the world, from his automobile production to his labor practices.
He then talked about the Heritage Association’s initiative beginning in 2012 to begin partnering with other Ford historical associations. The association has several partners in Michigan and others in Indiana and Florida. When Campbell announced that the Richmond Hill Historical Society was the Heritage Association’s newest partner, the audience applauded. The Heritage Association’s goal, he said, is to promote the Henry Ford story and each partner in the group.
Prior to coming to Richmond Hill in May, Campbell said, he didn’t know much about the city. But after talking to key members of the community, he said, “I am very excited about the possibilities of our new partnership for telling the Ford story to the rest of the world.”
Campbell pointed out that the Fords’ winter estate in Fort Myers, Florida — which Campbell said they visited fewer than a dozen times in their lives — draws about 250,000 visitors a year as part of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates. They embraced the Ford story and made it a major part of the tour there, Campbell said. On the other hand, Richmond Hill has hundreds of personal stories about Henry and Clara Ford that are not widely known.
“The possibilities are endless, and I hope you are willing to help us tell these stories to the rest of the world,” he said.
Campbell said two good ways to help in that regard are to financially support the Historical Society by becoming a member or volunteer with the group.
The event’s final speaker was Historic Savannah Foundation President and CEO Daniel Carey, who said preservation of historic sites is key and to jealously guard unique aspects of a community. Today, the city draws about 13 million visitors a year and takes in $2.5 billion in tourism revenue, but in 1965, he said, Savannah had a moribund downtown. However, the foundation created a revolving fund to buy properties and has saved more than 350 properties throughout the city, he said.
Carey also said that through Savannah’s friendship with Charleston, there was an understanding that travelers were interested in getting off Highway 17 and Interstate 95 and visiting the towns.