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Opinion: The case for downtown as recreational hub

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It has been a record-setting year for Springfield tourism.

According to the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, 2017 was a record-breaker for local hotel room demand and revenue. The number of enplanements at the Springfield-Branson National Airport nearly reached 1 million passengers – 993,129 to be exact.

Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium has been a game-changer, shining a spotlight on the Springfield area as the nation’s best new attraction and aquarium. The Bass Pro Shops’ owner’s continued investments in golf, including a Tiger Woods-designed course, strengthens the Ozarks as a national destination.

When these new guests arrive in Springfield, they are on the lookout for tastes, shopping and festivals as they discover what makes southwest Missouri unique.

Culture is king
According to Berkeley Research Group, 55 percent of millennials believe that travel is all about discovery and adventure. Along those lines, 70 percent of millennials want to explore and learn from the cultures and communities they visit.  

Downtown offers unique insights into Springfield’s history through its architecture, live performances at historic theaters and rich stories like those of historic Route 66 and outlaw Wild Bill Hickok.

Downtown provides connections to local entrepreneurs with 60 restaurants, including top-notch coffee shops, sidewalk cafes and the Brewery District with its three craft breweries and a distillery.  

In an age where shopping is losing its personal touch, downtown’s two dozen retailers provide the opportunity to get to know the owners, take do-it-yourself classes and give back to the community.

Downtown has expanded its event calendar with a variety of community events that allow guests a chance to socialize with locals. Upcoming examples are the Child Advocacy Center’s Over the Edge rappelling event, the Taste of SoMo food festival, the Birthplace of Route 66 car and motorcycle show, and the annual Cider Days fall festival.

Additionally, the choices for lodging within walking distance of downtown continue to expand. Hotel Vandivort has started work on its new building, which will double its number of guest rooms and add a highly anticipated rooftop deck. University Plaza and the Walnut Street Inn are strategically equidistant from downtown and Missouri State University, offering front row seats to iconic Artsfest and Cider Days festivals.

Don’t stop the trails
Once visitors check out the granddaddy of Bass Pro stores and Wonders of Wildlife, they can drive a mile north on Campbell to find themselves downtown. This corridor links two of Springfield’s major activity centers and should be examined to see how that experience can be optimized.

Additionally, Ozark Greenways has developed 72 miles of trails across Springfield. In order to capitalize on the investments made by Bass Pro to attract those who love the outdoors, the community should work together to address the remaining gaps in the greenways.  

Key examples include getting under Chestnut Expressway from Silver Springs Park/Ozarks Technical Community College/Drury University and into the heart of downtown; connecting West Meadows with the trail at Mount Vernon by going under Kansas Expressway; linking the Ewing and Rutledge-Wilson Farm parks under the West Bypass; and strengthening visibility and accessibility of The Link through the heart of Springfield from Doling Park through center city to the Medical Mile.

These last pieces are key to offering guests the opportunity to spend the night at a downtown hotel and then make a choice of biking in any direction.

Dust off the Hunden
In order to build on the momentum created by Bass Pro and the two decades of downtown revitalization, significant investments need to be made in downtown’s convention center complex and the adjacent Campbell Avenue corridor. Innovations in eco-friendly tourism also need to be considered.

Take, for example, the Hunden Report, a blueprint to make Springfield’s convention center complex more competitive. The report proposed connecting the current Expo Center with a new ballroom, kitchen and 200-bed hotel, and enhancing connectivity with the University Plaza complex by limiting the amount of time guests would be exposed to the unpredictable Ozarks weather.

The Hunden Report also called for improving the sidewalks on St. Louis Street to engage patrons along the three blocks to Park Central East. Now that the John Q. Hammons estate is nearing a conclusion, community leaders need to come together creatively to find financing tools necessary to make Springfield’s convention complex regionally competitive once again.

Rusty Worley, executive director of Downtown Springfield Association, can be reached at rusty@itsalldowntown.com.

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