Editor’s note: Following is the second in a series of three articles on the economic impact of the Boy Scouts of America on the area.
Depending on how much tourist infrastructure they already had in place, communities near the Boy Scouts of America’s former Jamboree site felt varying levels of economic impact from the event, but tourism officials there say there are ways to be proactive and involved in maximizing that potential.
Prior to developing a permanent home for the Jamboree in Fayette County, every four years the BSA built and then broke down their Jamboree site at the 70,000-acre Fort A.P. Hill military base in Caroline County, Va.
The county is rural; an economic development official there describes it as “a small community with few cultural and commercial resources.” Its county seat, Bowling Green, is home to only 1,115 people. Though only 15 minutes away from the military installation, the town’s economic benefit was relatively minor.
“We really had no way of extracting traveler dollars from the event. Unless you have those facilities at hand, you’re simply not going to realize that kind of revenue,” says Gary Wilson, economic development director for Caroline County.
In that sense, he feels that a city like Beckley is best poised to take advantage of the Jamboree’s presence in the area.
“I think it’s going to be challenging to those folks in the community adjacent to it to realize the full benefit. But I think where they already have hotels and theaters and such, those folks are going to clean up,” he says.
Wilson says that rules requiring Scouts to stay on the military base during the Jamboree meant it was only a small boost to the county’s economy. Once Scouts were inside the gate, they were pretty much sealed off. The effect in Caroline County tended to be from day tripping civilians who would come to the Jamboree to take part on a limited basis.
“I think we probably realized maybe $20,000 in revenue overall. When you’re talking about tens of thousands of people in your community, that’s not a tremendously large amount,” he said.
But ask the director of economic development and tourism for the City of Fredericksburg about the impact of the event and you’ll get a different story.
“It absolutely had an enormous impact,” says Karen Hedelt. “It’s essentially dropping a city larger in size than Fredericksburg 20 miles from us.”
With a population of 25,700 and a quaint historic downtown, Fredericksburg has a lot to offer tourists, both in the way of services and points of historical interest.
Because of its infrequency, Hedelt’s office never did an economic impact study of the event, but one thing she knows for sure is that the Jamboree will be missed by area business people, not to mention tourism groups. The city saw “huge” increases in hotel tax in the leadup and during the event.
“We would have to remind ourselves — ‘OK, next year we are going to have a drop in these two months. We need to understand and accept that it’s part of the bonus of this event coming near us,’” she said.
It took local tourism officials a while to get their heads around the sheer volume of people involved in Jamboree. The first year, Hedelt thought she had overpurchased on printed materials, but ended up running out and having to scramble to get more in place. It was a learning process.
The only downside, if it could be called that, for local businesses was the struggle to find capacity to carry such a large influx of people all at once.
“The impact was across the spectrum,” says Hedelt, and included hotels, restaurants, retail and auto services.
Nevertheless, she doesn’t advise founding a business based solely on the National Scout Jamboree, since it only happens every four years.
To the knowledge of George Whitehurst of the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce, no businesses sprang up in Caroline County as a result of the Jamboree.
Instead, it was more like a bonus for existing businesses. Fast food restaurants in Caroline County, for example, were certainly happy to have the troops coming and going.
“You kind of looked for it every four years,” says Ronnie James, a Fredericksburg hotelier with 25 years of experience in the business.
“It was one of those peak events in the Fredericksburg market. Just like during inauguration we get overflow from Washington. You have it on your calendar every four years and you’re looking forward to it.”
Whereas normally his hotels are booked at 80 to 85 percent occupancy, that swelled to 100 percent during the Jamboree.
Perhaps more importantly, he benefited from the longer-term business of all the setup crews, people from government agencies and BSA staff who came two or three weeks prior to prepare. These visitors worked hard and wanted a nice hotel and a good meal at a local restaurant at night. Fredericksburg could provide those things.
And so for weeks at a time, some hotels in the city were full just from the Jamboree business. It became hard to justify taking single or double night reservations during that time frame, since James knew he could likely fill it for several weeks otherwise.
James also says he has seen his area change and grow dramatically in the past 25 years of his career.
Back then, when the area still had a lot of country stores and mom and pop grocery stories, they would double their inventories for that week. Now, those kinds of places are less common, edged out by chains.
Commercial development in the region has expanded, traffic has worsened and security is tighter at the Jamboree.
“They weren’t coming up to the local ice cream shop like they used to,” he said of the Scouts. “The tourist restaurants and mom and pop type stores used to be kind of an attraction, especially for kids from New York City or Boston. It was kind of a treat for them. Now those kinds of things, for safety reasons and for the growth of the area, have kind of gone away.”
Since more hotels have sprouted up, they each get a smaller share of the pie.
During the most recent Jamboree in 2010, “(The event) helped fill the town but it wasn’t like previous years when it was oversold and we were sending people to Washington and Richmond,” he said.
He doubts that a hotel chain would decide to locate in southern West Virginia based solely on The Summit Bechtel Reserve.
But since the new Jamboree site is permanent and will also add a high adventure base and summer camp, West Virginians hope the economic effect will be more appreciable and steady through time.
“That’s really where they are going to be in a better situation than we ever were,” says Wilson. “I could see that you could really have a nice shot in the arm for your economy with that kind of situation there.”
James says the event was great exposure for Fredericksburg. He believes the area — with its five major Civil War battlefields — may remain a stop on the Boy Scout itinerary as troops arrange side excursions to visit attractions in the region.
“I think we’ll still see a little bit of the guys with green suits coming through,” he said.
Fredericksburg’s ability to capitalize on the Jamboree was likely due in part to certain efforts made by the tourism office.
Early on, Fredericksburg created a Boy Scout hiking trail program that led Scouts on a walking tour past 20-odd sites of historical interest in downtown. Afterward, the boys could fill out a questionnaire about what they learned and purchase a patch or medal.
It took some careful logistics to manage the parking as busloads of troops arrived on the hour to complete the walk. Drivers also had to be aware of pedestrians as the Scouts trooped through town.
The program was later imitated at some of the region’s Civil War battlefields run by the National Park Service.
“It could have been a scavenger hunt, or it could have been nature-based. We happen to be rich in history in our area. That’s just something we chose that was distinguishing to us,” said Hedelt.
Other localities, as they began to understand the impact of the Jamboree, created additional programming to provide activities for Scouts.
Another success for Hedelt’s office was placing a satellite visitor’s center at Fort A.P. Hill, which gave them another opportunity to be a resource for people looking for lodging or restaurants.
Staff polled the region’s hotels each morning to find out whether there were any vacancies.
“Frequently there were not,” says Hedelt. That’s with 3,800 hotel rooms in the immediate area, plus about 800 rooms in Caroline County.
To make the most of the huge influx of people to the region, Hedelt’s office, above all, had to look ahead and anticipate the visitors’ needs.
They kept information about shopping, car repair and medical care at the satellite visitor’s center. They developed a map that would lead people into Fredericksburg to major shopping areas, working closely with state and local police on routing.
“They have every need from shampoo to sneakers,” says Hedelt. “We just needed to have a good handle on resources.”
Hedelt advises local economic development officials to provide a forum, like a vendor expo, for local businesses to understand how scouting staff goes about their procurement process so they can join the vendor pool.
“I understand the wait-and-see approach,” she said, “but business relationships can be established that might be outside your immediate area — like for provision of food stuffs or transportation services — and once that relationship has been established, if it has been successful, you are less likely to move away from it in the future.”
James also advises local hoteliers to think in advance and prepare as much as possible. For one thing, know the Jamboree dates and protect them for long-term guests.
“You don’t want to turn business away, but not all business is necessarily good business if someone wants to stay right in the middle of it,” he said.
“But being a new project, it’s something they’re just going to have to feel out and see how it affects them.”
Wilson says it will take time for Fayette County’s tourism infrastructure to build up to capacity.
“And until it does,” he said, “the nearby communities with the infrastructure and nice amenities are going to be the ones to see the influx first, and it’s going to take a while for the rest to follow.”