A recently-released strategic plan deemed Sampson County a “mostly clean slate” as a tourism destination, and outlined various ways — from boosting an occupancy tax to implementing culinary, arts and agricultural events — the county could distinguish itself as a place people should visit.
“Sampson County has some solid building blocks which can serve as the foundation for an invigorated visitor economy,” the study read in part. “But it must develop more ways for visitors to engage with those assets in a meaningful way in order for them to be promoted, enjoyed and used to drive length of stay, visitor spending and repeat visitation.”
The strategic plan for the Sampson County Convention and Visitors Bureau was formulated from market research conducted by the Magellan Strategy Group LLC out of Asheville. It was initiated last year.
“We feel this is a great roadmap for us to use, moving forward,” said Sheila Barefoot, director of the Sampson County CVB.
Barefoot said the new strategic plan will be discussed at the next Sampson County CVB board meeting, scheduled for Aug. 22. Each board member has been asked by Barefoot to review the plan and come up with the top three items that they feel are most important so the board can begin working on them.
The plan lists a number of challenges for Sampson, including the size and diversity of such a large county; a relative lack of hotel rooms; a lack of ways for visitors to engage with the county’s rivers and agricultural traditions; a shortage of strong advocates for tourism growth; and very modest financial and human resources.
The plan urges the continued pursuit of an occupancy tax boost, from 3 to 6 percent. Even with the proposed doubling, the county faces an uphill climb in a “cluttered marketplace,” the study said, noting that “out-of-the-box investments” of resources and partnerships with other organizations must be considered in order to stand out in a crowded market.
Occupancy tax collections for 2014-15 in Sampson totaled $73,665, a far cry from the $257,162 collected in Duplin, $437,753 amassed in Harnett and $608,514 in Wayne that same year. By comparison, Johnston County saw just over $1 million in occupancy tax revenue while Cumberland was close to $5.6 million.
Visitors to Sampson County spent $48 million in 2015, ranking 59th of the state’s 100 counties. While significantly below spending levels in other counties, that figure is actually $9 million higher than Duplin, and $10 million higher than Bladen.
However, even with the potential doubling of a tax that could help efforts, the dollars will not go very far without the right partnerships that can stretch those monies, Magellan consultants told CVB members in their assessment.
“Because of this financial limitation, the CVB currently operates with only an executive director. That means the organization’s ability to execute strategies and tactics and measure their effectiveness is also limited,” the study states. “It is vital that the CVB staff and board work together to seek out partners and develop relationships with others who can help extend their resources and provide additional sources of both technical know-how and financial investment in the destination.”
Promoting old, building new
Numerous ideas were laid out in the strategic plan for CVB officials’ consideration, including ways for visitors to engage in Sampson’s agricultural legacy and waterway assets.
“Throughout our process of discovery, the one observation we heard consistently is how important agriculture is to Sampson County. Sampson is obviously an agricultural economic powerhouse … but there are actually few places where that tradition can best be engaged with by visitors,” the study pointed out.
Hubb’s Farm was listed as an exception, deemed an “agritourism powerhouse in its own right.” Twiddle Dee Farm and Kyle’s Farm were labeled as other agritourism assets of the county. Past that, however, options to experience agriculture were just not there.
The waterways, notably South River, Black River, Coharie River, and Six Runs Creek, were deemed significant waterway assets, “largely unspoiled and dramatically scenic,” which would be further opened to visitors with the introduction of legislation that would create a 2,600-acre state park along the Black River in southern Sampson.
Highlighting Sampson’s strengths, specifically agriculture, was crucial, according to the plan.
“For a destination that may be considered the breadbasket of the state, there are relatively few events and places in Sampson County that connect the visitor to that legacy. Any efforts related to agricultural-related product development in Sampson County would be time well spent,” the study furthered.
County officials were told that they should make a concerted effort to promote the county’s food and beverage assets, and to grow them.
To that end, a modern signature culinary event, such as a two-day farm and food cooking event, could act to connect the entire county. The plan also said the CVB should encourage and facilitate the development of a craft brewery in the county.
“Within the last five years, craft breweries have come significant positive implications for quality of life, nearby economic development and visitation growth,” consultants said in the plan.
In a recent study conducted by the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild, Magellan Strategy Group and Appalachian State University’s Department of Management, it was revealed that nearly two-thirds of craft beer enthusiasts surveyed tend to seek out craft breweries when they are traveling (65 percent), and a significant percentage plan trips based on destinations with craft breweries (31 percent).
Over half of those surveyed attended a craft beer festival or special event while traveling (71 percent), and most craft beer enthusiast respondents said they would travel over 50 miles to attend such festivals.
More forums for live performances is also a viable avenue, the study noted. Clinton’s Alive After Five event series is already an established foothold locally, “one that generates both community pride and downtown activity.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.