By Laurie Atwater |
It’s National Tourism Week and like it or not the tourism season is underway in Lexington!
Over the past ten years tourism efforts in Lexington have increased and our offerings have been greatly enhanced. The Tourism Committee focused on creating and building the capacity of The Liberty Ride (a guided trolley tour that runs between Lexington and Concord four times daily) and the Historical Society has tackled the business of converting our historic houses from worn-out to welcoming. They are now impressive house museums with historically researched interpretations, climate controlled systems and visitor friendly program centers.
Ten years ago many tourists merely passed through Lexington on their way to Concord without eating, shopping or staying. Many felt that Lexington was missing out on the economic benefits of tourism, which most communities would embrace. Dawn Mckenna, Chair of the Lexington Tourism Committee was one of them. “Our mission is to create economic development opportunities through tourism,” McKenna says. The Tourism Committee was created a little over a decade ago by the Selectmen and placed under the umbrella of the Economic Development Office. “When we started with tourism ten years ago the issue was that everyone would come to the Battle Green and go directly to Concord,” she says. “We partnered with Concord precisely because The Massachusetts Department of Tourism (MOTT) released statistics that revealed that Lexington/Concord was the fourth most visited region in the state, but tourists would stop at the Battle Green and then go to Concord. We’d never see them again.” McKenna’s initial goal was to create a mechanism to capture that visitor and the revenue that he or she could bring to the town. The Liberty Ride was devised in direct response to that goal. McKenna says they have been very successful, increasing ridership and revenue each year. The Liberty Ride is fully self-funding and no taxpayer dollars have been used to fund the Liberty Ride.
In the intervening years the Lexington Historical Society, under the direction of Executive Director Susan Bennett, has worked very hard to restore two of their historic sites and is preparing to tackle the third. They have raised money through countless volunteer-run fundraisers, sought out grants and taken advantage of Community Preservation Funds (an assessment on Lexington property owners with a state match) to create a much richer set of tourism offerings in Lexington. Add to that the completion of two new state of the art hotels and a growing assortment of restaurants, and Lexington has a lot to offer these days! For the town that means hotel-lodging property taxes, sales tax, meals tax and revenue to support our businesses.
A GREAT PROBLEM TO HAVE
With increased success comes increased demand. Tourists need more time in Lexington to take in all of the sites and spend more dollars than they did ten years ago. The Liberty Ride, with only one trolley, has its limitations. The length of the trip from Lexington to Concord makes it difficult for tourists to get on and off the trolley to tour the historic houses. A quick read of the comments on the much-used website Trip Advisor confirms that—people want to get off but the 90 minute wait for the return of The Liberty Ride deters them from getting off the tour. However, The Liberty Ride has been very successful at capturing the visitor by offering them a service that is innovative and unique. And, we have to recognize that there are different types of tourists and many of them prefer this type of tour. Most importantly the tour originates in Lexington and ends in Lexington and that is something that has been invaluable to bring tourists to town.
What a great problem to have! We’ve gone from having too little to keep a tourist in Lexington for the day, to having so much to offer that we need to develop new transportation plans to make the most of the taxpayers and the Historical Society’ investment.
In this era of economic challenge, many cities and towns across the country would love to have this dilemma. In the quest to shift some of the revenue creation from the backs of property owners many towns seek to create tourism opportunities by developing attractions—but here in Lexington we have a significant historic resource that, if managed properly, could be a greater source of pride for Lexington and contribute even more to the economic well-being of the town with some savvy management.
People will come to Lexington whether we want them to or not—so the question is: What do we want to have them take away from a visit to our historic community and what do we want them to leave behind?
Lexington has a unique situation when it comes to tourism. Three entities the Town of Lexington: the Tourism Committee, The Lexington Chamber of Commerce and the Lexington Historical Society share responsibility for different pieces of the tourism puzzle.
Lexington is not a part of the National Park System having chosen to retain ownership of its historic Battle Green and therefore hasn’t enjoyed the benefit of federal dollars or federal marketing programs. The Battle Green is managed ultimately by the Selectmen with operation assigned to the town’s Tourism Committee which also has responsibility for hiring, training and managing the Battle Green Guides that provide information about April 19, 1775 to thousands of visitors each year.
The Visitor’s Center is owned and maintained by the town. Responsibility for providing staffing is provided by the Lexington Chamber of Commerce. The Tourism Committee works closely with the Chamber to improve the quality of the visitor experience to the Visitor’s Center.
The Hancock Clarke House and the Munroe Tavern are owned by the Lexington Historical Society. The Buckman Tavern is co-owned by the Historical Society and the town of Lexington. The Historical Society manages the property and houses its gift shop on the premises.
With so many parties involved it is difficult to develop a coordinated plan for tourism. While each group has its own interests, it is essential to look at the big picture and move toward a model that utilizes the individual strengths of each organization and nurtures collaboration for the ultimate health of tourism as a whole.
In looking at how Lexington may benefit more robustly from its considerable tourism assets, Town Manager Carl Valente takes a measured approach.
Valente has been watching carefully as he has gently increased the tourism marketing budget over the past few years from a meager $0 to $15K, to $25K this year.
According to Valente, the Tourism Committee has gotten support from the Selectmen and from town hall for a good reason. “You know, the Tourism Committee made a really good point about how much they have accomplished with no money and how much more marketing they could do with just a little money—like getting on different websites and participating in different events that promote tourism. So for real short money it made sense and we continued to see growth.”
The Town Manager understands better than anyone the importance of testing the waters and bringing the community along gently. And, in a town like Lexington he understands the great importance of thorough study and planning and community buy-in.
“We have to do it right. We can’t just let it happen and not have thought it through. We have to do this in a thoughtful and planned way and that’s what I see the Tourism Committee working on.”
McKenna sees a natural tension between town politics and tourism. “There is a dichotomy,” she says. “Towns are by nature conservative; tourism is by nature entrepreneurial. But, she adds, “Tourism [the Tourism Committee] has gotten support from the Selectmen year after year.”
Valente also admits that the receipts to the town from the hotel and meals taxes have surprised him. “It’s been really strong here,” he says. “Although it’s hard to get good metrics, the information that we are getting—and some of it is anecdotal—all seems to be positive.” Valente says that Chris Hartzell of the Aloft and Element hotels “has done a fabulous job building the business,” and he appreciates the shuttle that they send into Lexington Center.
But some of the information is more than anecdotal. The Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism has supplied McKenna with data that suggests that Lexington gained $50 million in total revenue from tourism in FY 2010. At the local level, $550,000 in room taxes was generated by the 6% local option room tax. Meal taxes in FY 2010 when the measure was approved in March by town meeting were $98,367 (for the remainder of the fiscal year) and the subsequent full year (FY 2011) the total was $338,449.
Of course, not all room taxes or meal taxes are attributable to tourism. “Whether its $50 million or $20 million, it’s a whole lot more millions than people ever conceived,” Mckenna says.
Tourism dollars are important to the businesses in town. According to Kathy Fields owner of Crafty Yankee, “A nice portion of our business is tourism… Summer and fall are the biggest months, but we do have year-round visitors because of our proximity to Hanscom, Harvard, MIT and Boston. Summer tourists include more families. Bus groups are mostly in the late spring and fall but they are allocated minimal time in the center, so they do not have too many extra minutes to shop. The tourists that come by car are generally good spenders and they love anything local. We try very hard to engage them and talk about the other businesses in town and always are recommending places to eat.”
Any increase in tourism would certainly not hurt the town’s bottom line as long as disproportionate infrastructure investments are not required. Of course striking that perfect balance is both both the challenge and the opportunity for Valente.
For the more adventurous, this toe-in approach is often cited as Lexington’s downfall. Too much talk, study and review often takes many a good project around the barn and back with nothing to show for the trip. However, in building a case for investment in tourism, Lexington has proceeded with caution and the results are piquing interest. According to McKenna, the town hosted between 100,000 (the number of visitors that actually signed in at the Lexington Visitors Center) and 1 million (the number of visitors clicked in at the National Park) visitors last year.
“Culturally, I don’t think the town will ever step back from what it sees as an obligation to educate people about what went on here in 1775,” comments Town Manager Carl Valente. “What happened here in Lexington is such a critical piece of what it took to settle this country that I think the town feels an obligation to bring the message to generations to come—I don’t see us ever stepping away from that responsibility.”
However, Valente is wary about moving too quickly. “If we had tour bus after tour bus tying up the center I don’t think that people would want to put up with that,” he says. Valente trusts the Tourism Committee to move ahead sensibly. “From that perspective, I have to credit Dawn [McKenna] and the Tourism Committee for going forward in a thoughtful, planned way. We want to do things in a way that will be supported by the community,” he says.
Valente acknowledges that tourism, and increasing tourism, could bring needed funds into the town. The down-zoning of much of Lexington’s commercial property in the 80s has placed a burden on the property owner that the town has been trying to manage ever since. Toward that end, a new economic development officer has been hired to replace Susan Yanofsky who left last year. Her name is Melisa Tintocalis. “The first thing on her list is commercial development, specifically Hartwell Avenue, then Spring Street and Hayden Ave.,” Valente says. “That’s tax base for us. We lost so much tax base when we down-zoned in ’86. That pushed the burden off onto the residential tax base. The second priority is the center because having a vibrant center is important to the community.”
Where does tourism fall on her list? “Its number three,” Valente says, “Just like I told the Center Committee—you come after commercial development.”
Valente acknowledges that tourism and the center have lots in common—one is good for the other. It’s also worth noting that both Lexington’s historic roots and its center are assets when trying to attract that all important commercial development.
Dawn McKenna says, “Building the tax base is only one leg of a multi-leg economic development stool.” She believes that the community is ready to “take it to the next level.”
The Historical Society is also ready for the next step. “We view ourselves as a real player in the economic well-being of the town,” says Paul Ross, President of the group. At their annual meeting he stated that the society wants to become more involved with generating tourism for the town.
Susan Bennett concurs. “We have made significant upgrades to the houses and reinvigorated our tours to attract more visitors,” she says.
Several exciting projects are in various phases of planning that will enhance Lexington for both residents and tourists.
The Battle Green Master Plan- In 2009 the Selectmen authorized the Master Planning process for the Lexington Battle Green. In 2010 the Community Preservation Committee appropriated $25,000 to hire a professional consultant (Past Designs LLC) to prepare a master plan that would fully explore the issues surrounding the use of the Battle Green. From interpretation, to signage, to management responsibility, the report outlines a course of improvements to what it calls a “complex piece of real estate” acknowledging that the many stakeholders who are involved in the stewardship of this “national shrine” make it a property that is “managed by committee” and therefore difficult to change. The repost also recommends that a professional traffic study be conducted to address bus parking and traffic flow around the Battle Green and its surrounding neighborhoods.
Visitor’s Center Needs Assessment- Prepared jointly by the Chamber of Commerce and the Tourism Committee, this report lays out three paths for improvement to the Visitor’s Center. The preferred plan will improve the bathrooms, allocate space for programming and create a back entrance maximizing the traffic from the bike path.
Buckman Tavern Restoration-The Historical Society has been awarded CPA funding to proceed with the first step of the project to restore Buckman Tavern which is a professional assessment of the needs for the building. According to Susan Bennett, the work on Buckman will not be as extensive as what they have done on the other buildings, and they are hoping for completion in 2013. “We want to make some changes to be fully ADA compliant and to improve wiring, fire suppression and climate control,” she says. They would like to make some minor changes to improve the flow for ticketing and the gift shop.
Lexington Center Streetscape Plan-Though not explicitly associated with tourism, the impressive work of the Lexington Center Streetscape Project team will work hand in hand to create a better Lexington experience for residents and tourists alike. Increased integration of the bike path, improved seating and signage, landscaping enhancements and historically integrated elements from lampposts to paving materials will improve the overall aesthetic of Lexington. Improved sidewalks, safety and circulation between the public and private spaces will create a more walk-able downtown.
Improved Marketing-Both the historical Society and the Tourism Committee have improved their marketing materials and the distribution of the materials throughout New England. The Historical Society has developed a partnership with the Historical Society has a very active program with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History which is sending hundreds of teachers to Lexington each year. They have also redesigned their website and continue to utilize recommendations made by a group of Bentley College students that used the society as a case study.
The Tourism Committee has worked with Diamond Tours to supply walk-on tour guides to narrate a tour to Concord and return to Lexington for dinner. They advertise on various tourism websites, attend tourism conferences and work with the Boston Concierge Association to educate frontline hotel staff about Lexington tourism.
This summer the Historical Society will be introducing Living History programming to the Hancock-Clarke House including craftsmen doing colonial crafts that is sure to be popular with families.
Although there are overlapping interests when it comes to tourism in Lexington, it is fundamentally clear that close collaboration between the town Economic Development Officer, the Historical Society and the Tourism Committee is needed to solve transportation issues and develop a coordinated plan for promoting all tourism opportunities in Lexington as the landscape continues to evolve. Increasing tourism and prolonging the stay of tourists has paid dividends for the restaurants, shops and hotels in Lexington and has ultimately come back to the town in taxes and fees.
Both the Tourism Committee and the Historical Society are encouraged that the town is taking a greater interest in tourism. “I have the greatest respect for Carl and the professionalism that he has brought to town hall,” Bennett comments. “We are looking forward to meeting with Melissa and working with her. Professional expertise from town hall can only enhance the tourism efforts in Lexington.”
“As I go around the state,” McKenna says, “All these cities and towns are doing everything they can to convince people to visit their town. We don’t have to make that case—Lexington is in all the history books!”
“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” comments Carl Valente. “It’s typical of government—it goes in small steps, but I think that’s a good thing. It allows us to be measured. If I had a magic wand here, I would like to have a staff person to deal with both tourism and the center piece.”
Now, maybe that’s a logical next step.