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COLEITH MOLSTAD — Boost small town economic recovery by investing in cultural tourism

The year 2020 and the impact of a global health crisis have disrupted lives and communities across Texas in nearly every way: emotionally, financially, mentally and physically.

A full recovery won’t happen overnight but we can still begin plans to rebuild our communities, boost economies and help Texans regain their livelihoods. It will take investment in public spaces and a spirit of cooperation.

The good news is cultural tourism is in for a big year ahead, and the projected trends are favorable for smaller communities similar to ours.

VRBO, an American online marketplace for vacation rentals, recently released its 2021 trends report — which is based on U.S. survey results taken from more than 8,000 people — revealing that travelers are eagerly planning to make up for lost time but with modified plans and destinations.

According to the report:

  • 82% of families already have travel plans for 2021
  • 59% of families say they’re more likely to drive instead of fly on their next trip
  • 65% plan on traveling more than they did before the pandemic
  • 33% are willing to spend more than they traditionally would

As we emerge from this global pandemic, the survey indicates travelers may opt for smaller towns with fewer crowds as opposed to large cities a plane trip away.

While traveling preferences of tourists may shift after 2020, culture will still play a vital role in attracting tourists and boosting local economies.

In a March 2018 report, we learned the arts and culture industry contributed $67.5 billion to rural community economies, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additionally, research conducted by Bloomberg Philanthropies found consumers intend to visit cultural institutions once they reopen with outdoor attractions and venues that allow greater freedom of movement in higher demand.

Think museums, botanical gardens, zoos and outdoor performance spaces.

This is great news for smaller communities as it could position them atop many travel lists.

This has been a goal of the Mitte Foundation — an organization based in Brownsville which aims to identify, engage, and support educational and community organizations — with the Mitte Cultural District.

The vision for the Mitte Cultural District is to play a big part in Brownsville’s appeal for both area families and visiting tourists.

Never has the focus been more important to return spaces to the public while enhancing amenities to create memories, as well as educational and economic opportunities for all. With new enhancements anticipated to be complete in 2021, the Mitte Cultural District will attract tourism to boost the economy with support to local small businesses.

In a post-pandemic world, outdoor spaces will be key, which can be found in the list of improvements to the district. Those include an outdoor concert venue with built-in “grass berm” seating for 120 (plus room for an additional 300 open lawn spots in front of the stage), spaces for local food trucks to serve their cuisine and parking for 54 vehicles.

The foundation has also collaborated with Brownsville Health and Wellness Coalition to add more space for the farmers market. All in all, the Mitte Foundation has invested $5 million and counting here.

The district’s offerings even extend beyond that space. The Mitte Foundation and the Children’s Museum of Brownsville have partnered to help amplify educational programs available to young people and adults in Brownsville and its surrounding areas by expanding the museum.

You might say we’re imagining how to propel learning opportunities into the stratosphere. Though in the early stages of planning, our hope is that residents and visitors to Brownsville will enjoy these new cultural amenities for generations to come.

As news circulates of multiple reliable vaccines, there’s a sense of hope we can soon climb out of an abysmal 2020 and begin the New Year ready to work and play.

To help make this a reality in our Texas communities, there is a need for help from city leaders, tourism stakeholders, vendors and anyone in the community invested in its future.

Together we can move forward to recovery, coming out even stronger than we were before.


Coleith Molstad is the executive director of The Mitte Foundation and Felipe Peña is the executive director of Children’s Museum of Brownsville and the chairman of the Mitte Cultural District board.


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