CLAREMONT — Sullivan County’s tourism challenge is not a lack of assets but how to promote the wealth of assets it actually has, according to experts.
“If you go to the [online destination map] we created, you can scroll down to see 140 or 150 sites that have been uploaded [so far], and it’s just one beautiful photo after another,” said University of New Hampshire Community & Economic Development Field Specialist Penelope Whitman. “And there’s a sense of, ‘Wow, this place is amazing!’ But nobody else really knows about it.”
Whitman, who relocated to New Hampshire from Washington, D.C., recalled a visit four years ago to a New Hampshire visitor information center near Grantham, when she had inquired about places of interest in Sullivan County, as she was trying to familiarize herself with the area.
“The guy pulled out the map . . . looked at it and said, ‘There’s nothing there,’” Whitman said. “And it’s not that this gentleman was disrespecting this region but that there’s nothing out there about it.”
Sullivan County officials aim to change that through its creation of a regional marketing operation to attract people from outside the region to the county’s assets, from its historical and cultural attractions to its diversity of outdoor recreational opportunities.
About 47 county residents, including local officials and business leaders, convened at The Common Man in Claremont on Thursday for a collaborative workshop to share visions and ideas for spurring growth and economic development in Sullivan County.
The county began its regional marketing initiative four years ago, alongside its campaign to help build the needed workforce for local industries, which the county targets through the provision of free adult education courses at the Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center, through a partnership with the local vocational schools and employment agency TPI Staffing.
Last year the county adopted the brand “The Sugar River Region” to convey the county’s unifying identity. The brand includes a carefully crafted logo that pieces elements of the county’s natural and manmade assets, from its hardwood forests to a distant wooden bridge that crosses the winding Sugar River as it disappears into a mountainous backdrop.
At the bottom of the logo is the slogan “New Hampshire Made Here,” a reference to the region’s rich manufacturing history, Whitman said.
“The Sugar River is why we are all here,” Whitman said. “The Sugar River is the reason why this place was settled hundreds of years ago, because the Sugar River was the power that turned the wheels that created the industry and brought the people.”
Not surprisingly, nature and outdoor recreation was frequently mentioned by county residents as a central destination asset.
About 70 percent of the sites uploaded to the online map, dubbed the Love Sullivan Project, pertained to natural resources, from scenic vistas to recreational trails, Whitman noted.
Groups also commonly stressed the arts and cultural offerings, from the region’s plethora of existing performance venues, theatre groups, galleries and historical attractions.
Yet the community discussion also revealed the potential challenges ahead for a county-wide plan.
The aim of the regional plan is to pool assets from all communities in Sullivan County into a single, integrated plan. Larger communities like Claremont and Newport have some of their own marketing resources. The county plan seeks to encourage collaboration between the county communities to support one another’s assets and recognize the mutual benefit.
However, the forum discussions also illustrated the influence of a majority of participants coming from Claremont and Newport. The group shares frequently referenced Claremont-centered items, such as the Pleasant Street reconstruction project or a possible river-walk along North Street. Another group mentioned the need for nationally-known restaurants or lodgings, which is arguably more applicable a discussion for Claremont, Newport, or Sunapee than Goshen or Unity.
While growth in “the big three” communities — Charlestown, Claremont, and Newport — carries an indirect benefit to the smaller surrounding communities, only one group spoke about the role of the smaller Sullivan communities.
“We talked about all the downtowns being revitalized, even the tiny towns that have thriving community stores that would be a destination,” said Newport resident Virginia “Biddy” Irwin. “We now know that we are a region. We aren’t Claremont or Newport or Sunapee or Charlestown. We should all band together to promote and support each other, have events that cross over from town to town and communicate better about who we are.”
County officials have previously discussed the rich natural resources in its small communities, including hiking trails, natural vistas and recreational water areas, which could benefit from better signage, mapping and promotion.
County Manager Derek Ferland said that a second community forum will likely be scheduled around February 2022.
These community discussions aim to provide feedback to the committee overseeing the development of the county marketing plan and the design of an organizational group that will manage and implement the plan once developed.