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Rock Hill invests money to plug Old Town tour

Residents should expect - demand - their governments spend money wisely.

Using that standard, a recent discussion by the Rock Hill City Council did what it was expected to do - discuss how money is being spent, no matter how large or small the amount.

On further examination, the discussions might not be good government, or good for business, and are at least symptomatic of a problem that affects too many governing bodies - taking too much time to discuss the small stuff because it's easier to understand than the big picture.

At issue in this case was how to spend money collected from tourists. For governments it's the best kind of money - you don't have to provide services to tourists, such as educating their children or picking up their garbage.

Because it is tourism money, it comes with strings attached. You can't use the money to offset rising utility costs, you can't use the money to cut the tax rate and you can't use the money to pay most salaries. It is for what it says, tourism.

Rock Hill's City Council was discussing how to spend unspent money from the 2009-2010 fiscal year - about $315,597.

There was little discussion about spending $168,000 for a park at the Riverwalk, or $94,000 to improve canoe and kayak access to the Catawba River. There were a couple questions about spending $55,000 to reconfigure the amphitheater adjacent to City Hall and no questions about spending $37,500 to add a batting cage and recondition the four baseballs field at Hargett Park.

No, most of the discussion was about the smallest of requests - $20,000 to market the Old Town walking tour. In the words of the council, "that's a lot of money" to spend on marketing.

In reality it's not a lot of money - in the big picture. Rock Hill gets about $4 million annually in tourism tax dollars, most of it from the 3 percent lodging tax and the 2 percent food and beverage tax. The marketing request, then, is one-half a percent of the total budget.

It's not a lot of money to buy regional ads. Two ads in publications such as Southern Living or the AAA magazine can easily exceed $9,000.

The unexpected attention caught city staff off guard. They didn't have the details the City Council wanted, but promised to get them.

The new walking tour is a vast improvement over what the city once had - cassette tapes and walkmans.

The tour - a little over a mile - loops through downtown. It's the kind of tour where you need to look up, down and all around - details are everywhere, including on utility boxes. You also need to listen - the blare of a train horn will remind you we're a railroading town - and even stop to smell - the flowers and food aromas.

Some of the history we share. Building hotels by public subscription was pretty common in the 1920s.

What's uncommon is Rock Hill's Andrew Jackson still stands, albeit it's no longer a hotel. Only a few communities have managed to keep these old hotels and return them to their former glory.

Other history is about businesses that have come and gone. Reminders of their names still can be found on signs, some polished, others fading, some forever chiseled into rock.

Rock Hill has the Old Town Bistro restaurant on Main Street where 51 years ago students from Friendship Junior College tried to order food but were arrested instead because of their race.

While it may not be unique, the walking tour is pretty high tech. You can listen to the tour by borrowing an MP3 player, dial a phone number to learn about each tour site, or call up the tour on the Internet with your smart phone.

It's also a good example of a public-private partnership, as the city worked with local schools and Winthrop University, Comporium Communications, Historic Rock Hill and the Rock Hill-York County Convention and Visitor's Bureau to develop and fund the walking tour.

In fact, the budget for marketing and improving the tour includes $3,000 from Comporium and $12,000 from the visitor's bureau, bringing the total to $35,000.

Undoubtedly the marketing request will pass when the council has all the answers. It is likely to be the last time the council questions marketing the tour. Budgets for other downtown favorites such as the Come-See-Me festival or the holiday parade already have marketing factored in.

Hopefully, in the longer run, council will remember the big picture - that for every dollar spend on tourism sites and marketing them, the return is about $10.

And in this case, that's good news for downtown merchants, because the folks who come to walk our downtown will have the discretionary dollars to eat lunch, sip a libation or shop - providing we have something to offer.

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