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Opinion: Queen City relies on tourism industry

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School is out, and temperatures are climbing. It’s time to load up the minivan and get away.

After a year of no pay raises, doing more with fewer people, and riding the roller coaster that is the global stock market, we all deserve a break.

The destination is less important than the road trip itself.

Escape the daily routine, explore new places and experience different tastes, sounds and sensations.

This primal urge to get the heck out of Dodge is a reminder of how vital the tourism industry is to the Queen City of the Ozarks.

Springfield’s 6,000 hotel rooms generated more than a million room nights sold in 2009 and pumped $74 million in revenues into the local economy.

Out-of-town guests support more than 800 dining options and a variety of shopping and cultural activities.

Nearly 50 percent of the American population lives within a 500-mile radius, and they are drawn to Springfield by youth athletic tournaments, church conferences, car clubs and regional conventions.

Attractions central
As these millions of guests find their way here by way of Bass Pro Shops, Branson, outdoor recreation, area colleges and universities, and regional health care facilities, opinions of our community will be shaped by their impressions of center city. Some universal questions include:

• Are there quality local restaurants? There are more than 50 restaurants in center city that range from some of the region’s best fine dining to casual to coffeehouses. They represent every price range and type of cuisine.

• What’s the arts and culture scene? The First Friday Art Walk downtown shines a spotlight on the 20 galleries, 20 pubs and clubs, 16 movie screens, five live theater venues and two museums.

Plus, there are several family-friendly events throughout the summer such as the Sounds on the Square concert series, C-Street Jam and Wednesdays at Founders Park.

• How are the sports and recreational activities? Half a million fans cheer the Springfield Cardinals, the AA franchise of the St. Louis Cardinals, at Hammons Field.

Ice skating is available year-round at Mediacom Ice Park, and Jordan Valley Park offers free water jets and climbing rocks.

• What kind of shopping is available? Two dozen local independent retailers have recently opened in center city with a great variety of apparel, gifts, pottery, hand-blown glass, stained glass and chocolate.

Developing for the future
Despite all those amenities, several enhancements need to be made to make center city more competitive for conventions and groups considering Springfield as host. Ideas include:

• Convention friendliness. The downtown Expo and convention center need more national chain-affiliated rooms on-site to attract large groups.

The much-discussed hotel on the former arena site would go a long way toward that effort.

• Connectivity. All the facilities in the expanded complex should be connected so guests can stay out of the unpredictable Ozarks weather.

• Capital investments. Message board signage would promote current and future events, and escalators would improve the Expo Center for seniors.

• Corridor redevelopment. Visitors in any large city expect to walk several blocks to their destinations.

However, the six blocks on St. Louis Street between University Plaza and Park Central Square feel like an eternity due to the vacant storefronts. The properties along this corridor (such as the Woodruff and McDaniel buildings and the former Arbor Motel site) should be energized with new uses.

In the meantime, take pride in what your hometown has to offer this summer.

Take guests to your favorite independent restaurant. Stroll to your favorite store, and introduce them to the proprietor. Bring them to a Cardinals game, and cheer the future big leaguers. There’s more than one way to get away.

Rusty Worley, executive director of Urban Districts Alliance, can be reached at rusty@itsalldowntown.com.[[In-content Ad]]

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