Cynthia F. Pilcher, Kay L. Tettleton and R. David Neal
Rural America is turning to nature to revitalize its communities. Ironically, farming communities with enhanced natural amenities may boost business opportunities. While past generations looked to towns and cities as destinations for tourism, today’s travelers are seeking the authentic experiences found in the rural South.
Innovative, interactive opportunities to experience nature through hunting, fishing, birding, hiking, camping, biking, horseback riding, canoeing and photography are among the experiences offered by rural communities. The quiet country atmosphere enjoyed by generations of rural residents may become one of the hottest vacation destinations in America.
While travelers continue to look to metropolitan areas with their rich resources of culture, art, history and entertainment, green spaces are becoming increasingly more popular as vacation destinations. Youth and adults are choosing vacations that bring them close to nature.
The culture of the Mississippi River delta region, including northeast and central Louisiana, is rich with the folklore of King Cotton, “the blues” music and the archaeology of past civilizations. Some call this part of Louisiana the delta’s “diamond in the rough.” The area’s cypress and moss-lined bayous teeming with wildlife in the warm months and waterfowl that pattern the sky during winter migration create the perfect setting for a nature lover’s recreation destination. Waterways abound in the hardwood and pine forests, as well as the agricultural landscapes, making this region appealing.
The Louisiana delta region contains more than 1.6 million acres of agricultural land, plus nearly 200,000 acres in conservation programs. Hunting and fishing are a way of life in the northeastern area of Sportsman’s Paradise, which is Louisiana’s motto. Wildlife-related recreation is a $1.6 billion industry in Louisiana and a $108 billion industry nationwide.
Rural communities blessed with natural amenities are in an excellent position to diversify their economies by promoting nature-based tourism. The LSU AgCenter recognizes this potential and is directing resources to provide educational programs to facilitate and strengthen the effort. Tremendous opportunities for entrepreneurship and increasing community capital emerge from this growing industry.
The AgCenter is helping rural landowners diversify the economies of their communities by capitalizing on the assets in their own backyards. Economic diversification through outdoor recreation, heritage and cultural tourism is a window of opportunity for the economically depressed delta area in Louisiana.
The establishment of a new economic development initiative by the LSU AgCenter called “Discover Northeast Louisiana Outdoors” led to a regional effort to embrace new ways to develop local economies. The primary mission of this initiative is to facilitate economic diversification, environmental- resource sustainability and economic revitalization through alternative land use.
Landowners in a 12-parish region worked collaboratively to promote this initiative through the formation of a nonprofit organization called the Delta Outdoors and Wildlife Association. This group includes business owners, landowners, agricultural producers and members of economic development organizations eager to develop, promote and market outdoor recreation and tourism.
Delta Outdoors and Wildlife Association members are working in conjunction with a recently organized grassroots economic development alliance called Louisiana Delta 65, Inc. The AgCenter community economic development program was the catalyst for the formation of this new entity, which was the vision of community leaders in Lake Providence. Through community coaching and facilitation, community leaders and elected officials from five parishes gathered in Tallulah to create this alliance. Emerging leaders are taking ownership of this regional project, thus increasing community capital through enhanced civic engagement.
Agri-tourism could play a major role in this initiative. From the Arkansas border north of Lake Providence to the Mississippi state line at Vidalia, U.S. Highway 65 provides a new frontier for tourists interested in agri-tainment. Louisiana Delta 65, Inc. is responsible for the reinstatement of the Highway 65 legislative commission, which is an advocate for highway improvements including widening the highway from two lanes to four lanes.
With increased emphasis on all aspects of rural tourism, needs of small businesses must be assessed. Customer relations skills are addressed to ensure each visitor is greeted with an old-fashioned dose of Southern hospitality and knowledge about the heritage of the area. These one-on-one conversations educate the traveler about the area and may lengthen the traveler’s stay or encourage a return trip. Improving customer relations skills strengthens the sustainability of businesses in rural areas.
Through the AgCenter’s Delta Rural Development Center in Oak Grove, community economic development agents offer workshops to assist entrepreneurs and front-line employees in honing skills to increase customer loyalty. Entrepreneurship and leadership skills development are viable assets for increasing community capital and diversifying the economy. E-commerce has provided an avenue for small businesses to increase revenues by selling Louisiana products worldwide.
For centuries, the waters of the mighty Mississippi created a rich alluvial flood plain. Future generations will reap the benefits of conservation practices and a diversified economy in the delta. Selling the rural experience through nature-based tourism may be one answer to economic sustainability in this region and to keeping main streets alive across the delta.
Cynthia F. Pilcher, Community Economic Development Agent, Northeast and Central regions, Winnsboro, La.; Kay L. Tettleton, Community Economic Development Agent, Northeast Region, Calhoun, La.; and R. David Neal, County Agent, Catahoula Parish, Harrisonburg, La.
(This article appeared in the fall 2005 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)