Destination Alamance County: We have more visitors than expected but there’s room to grow

Tourism blog Haw River at Glenco

The Haw River at Glencoe. A scenic spot in Alamance County.

“In your opinion what are the three greatest things to do in Alamance County for visitors in the following areas” . . .  (The survey question then goes on to list things like family activities, food, history and shopping.) I was briefly stumped on the very last one, adventure.

Adventure? Adventure?? Adventure???

So, the first three things I wrote off the top of my head were the following: 1. Conservators Center. 2. Ride along with Burlington police. 3. Hanging out after midnight at convenience stores.

So much for adventure, right? Wrong, way wrong.

This is but one question on a new survey about tourism in Alamance County undertaken by the Burlington / Alamance Convention and Visitors Bureau. The organization is taking an inventory of the county’s tourism assets as part of an image overhaul, per a story by reporter Bill Cresenzo in the Burlington Times-News. It’s a good idea and something that needs to be done every so often. And as my original answer to the question above illustrates, sometimes we don’t really remember what we have, until we start really thinking about it.

Ultimately and before I turned in the survey, it dawned on me what the best adventure lure is for would-be visitors to Alamance County. “It’s the Haw River, dummy,” I said to myself and smacked my forehead in realization of this original error. Even after living here off and on for 18 years, the river didn’t really dawn on me at first. Perhaps because the first eight or nine years I was of living in Burlington the Haw was way too polluted to use for outdoor recreation. It was among the worst rivers in the state. But that changed as regulation and oversight halted dye or other dumping from textile manufacturers or improved waste disposal technology used by municipal governments.

So yes today, Alamance County has a not only a viable venue for adventure tourists but an outstanding one – a river runs right through us. But for too many years we abused it and today I wonder if we’re doing enough to first utilize, then market it.

Good questions, even if I’m the one asking.

Yes, let’s face it, Alamance County’s not a primo vacation destination. This shocks absolutely no one. There’s no real beach. Not much in the way of a mountain in sight – OK, Bass Mountain, but really, come on. There are no swanky retreats or spas, no must-play championship golf course that’s accessible to the public and not much in the way of resort hotels and fine dining. Its downtowns are still evolving but also limited in one way or another and not always easy to find or get to. The county’s significant sports venues are at Elon University. There is one pro sports team and it has a short season.

With all that to consider, it’s amazing that Alamance County ranks No. 26 of 100 North Carolina counties when it comes to impact from tourism. In fact, travel and tourism generated more $171 million in spending here in 2015, according to a story published in Wednesday’s Burlington Times-News.

Respectable all things considered. It’s not like this area is Carteret County, where I lived for 15 years from 1992 to 2007. The home of Atlantic Beach, Emerald Isle, Beaufort and Morehead City is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the state. It has beaches, it has waterways, it has resorts, hotels, great restaurants, fresh seafood, boating, charter fishing, surf fishing, arts and culture, shopping, bars and tons of family attractions. It has adventure out the yin-yang. It also has a huge marketing budget.

Alamance County has . . . not a whole lot by comparison. But the county is hardly bankrupt in the tourism department. What the county does have is shopping, interstate access and Elon University. It also has Saxapahaw, which is more of a lure for out-of-town visitors than most realize. Those factors give Alamance County the biggest part of its tourism boost. That would be my guess anyway.

Because of mega-shopping sites such as Tanger Outlets in Mebane, thousands upon thousands of people traveling the I-40 / 85 stop searching for deals. There aren’t very many deals to be had, but what the hell. Many spend a lot of money at Tanger then perhaps scout around Mebane a little to see what else might be there and grab a bite to eat. Some might even make it into Mebane’s intriguing downtown and vow to come back later and check the shops, restaurants and bars more thoroughly. Alamance Crossing and University Commons get a good share of interstate traffic, too.

Tourism blog elon flagsThe number of visitors to our community through Elon University alone would shock people who live outside the towns of Elon and Gibsonville or in west Burlington. Because of prospective Elon students and their families who take campus tours throughout the year, current students and their visiting parents, athletic teams and other campus guests Elon perhaps makes the largest contribution to Alamance County’s tourism success. Elon is why chain restaurants sprang up in West Burlington and new hotels constructed – the most recent being the Drury Inn. Still, on some weekends, Alamance County can’t house all of the people who advance on Elon and lose some tourism dollars to Greensboro, even Durham. Do the math, Elon has 6,000 students, nearly all live on campus. Parents Weekend, Homecoming and Commencement are big-money weekends for Burlington-area businesses.

tourism blog HR ballroomAnd Saxapahaw is an interesting case study in what a community can do. It’s not located along a major highway, it’s out in the middle of nowhere really. The two things that stand out on a Google map is the Haw River and the county landfill. Yet with vision, ingenuity, grants and hard work, it has become a place known for art, fine foods and beers and a fabulous concert venue – all located on a former mill village transformed into so much more. It has a mini-festival every Saturday in the spring and summer with music, food and arts.  It also has the Haw River, a restored source for drawing people to its community for a little paddling, fishing and camping. There is also some strange plan for a theme park there but I’ll believe it when I see it – good chance it’s a bad idea anyway. The space is too tiny and there’s no interstate access.

Otherwise, Saxapahaw is fascinating because it remade itself into something completely different from what it was decades ago – a small community held together by a textile mill. The textile mill economy sustained this area for a century but began to diminish starting 20 years or so ago, leaving massive hulls of places where people in mill communities lived and worked. It’s an example of what’s possible for communities that work together with a goal in front of it.

This is where Alamance County is today when it comes to tourism revenue. For many in our area tourism seems like an afterthought – this isn’t a vacation destination, right? But think again, there are obviously opportunities for the county to improve its numbers, which are already pretty decent. In 2015, for example, tourism dollars accounted for $3 million in local tax revenues – a tax savings of nearly $83 per county resident.

Nothing to sneer at, and possibly a source of revenue for other county needs..

The survey now available online through the Burlington / Alamance Convention and Visitors Bureau doesn’t take long to complete and is very much worth the time. It will not only give area leaders an opportunity to gauge what Alamance County does have (Burlington Royals minor league baseball, Elon athletics, Children’s Museum, Alamance Arts, Cedarock Park, Glencoe Mill Village, a variety of festivals, the Conservators Center, etc.) against what it doesn’t (Unique dining options, downtown art districts, history or art museums, fill in the blank of almost anything you can name that would make this area more of a destination).

The survey is built to make people think about what’s here, which in turn can help the Burlington / Alamance Convention and Visitors Bureau better understand and market our assets.

Here are some sample questions.

What type of visitor would most enjoy Alamance County, in your opinion?
Please choose one.
The Arts & Culture Enthusiast
The Family
The Foodie
The Nature Enthusiast
The Shopper
The History Buff
The Entertainment Seeker
The Sports Enthusiast
The Adventurer

What does Alamance County offer that Greensboro and Durham do not?

What do residents like about Alamance County?

In your opinion what are the three greatest things to do in Alamance County for visitors in the following areas:
Arts and culture
Family activities

To have a true Alamance County experience you must:
Feel / touch

There are a few more questions along this vein, something written in order to generate real thought about our area in terms of tourism. I completed the survey but won’t reveal my answers except to the following two questions.

Question: How do you think outsiders describe Alamance County?

My answer: Nice place, but not very memorable. The kind of place you pass on the interstate and say, “oh yeah, that place, I’m not really sure what’s there. Maybe we’ll stop one day.”

Q: What are the biggest challenges that keep Alamance County from being great?

MA: It has no interest in being great, it largely wants to stay exactly as it is. It lacks ambition.

Overall, I’d say there is bigger money to be made here in tourism by emphasizing what we have already and how we can make some things better or easier to find. Proposed plans in Burlington to improve the entry ways into downtown visually are things that need strong consideration. A history museum for the county or Burlington might help. Selling ourselves a little more on websites or statewide publications such as Our State magazine can’t hurt. And more businesses that offer amenities for people who come to this community on family or professional reasons could go a long way.

To participate in the survey click here.

5 thoughts on “Destination Alamance County: We have more visitors than expected but there’s room to grow

  1. Good essay and important things to consider, but you left out agriculture and agritourism. According to the Farm Bureau, agriculture accounts for about $990 million/year for our economy, or 17% of Alamance County’s GDP. We have some opportunities for agritourism, with you-pick-it farms, farmers’ markets, and sometimes open farm days. I am interested in finding ways to expand and encourage agritourism in Alamance County.


  2. One of Alamance County’s little known tourist attractions is the Snow Camp Outdoor Theater, with its summer historic drama offerings, Sword of Peace and Pathway to Freedom. Some groups come by bus every summer to see each year’s productions. And, one line still resonates in my mind from the years I played the slave owning doctor who sends his daughter’s servant girl and her children to Mississippi to accompany his newly married daughter – “It will be an adventure!”

    A night at the theatre in Alamance County often is!


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