The number one problem in Kansas is our perception of ourselves, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Secretary Robin Jennison said at the annual Pratt Area Chamber of Commerce annual meeting Thursday night.
"We don't think we have anything anybody wants to see," he continued. "That couldn't be farther from the truth."
Kansas has never promoted itself and ranks 47th among the states in money spent for promotion. It's one effort at creating a destination attraction, the Kansas Speedway Village West, near Kansas City, financed with Star Bonds in the late 1990s, was successful.
Why haven't we done it again? Jennison asked.
He asked how many in the audience had visited Colorado Springs. Several hands went up. How many went there to see the wax museum? It's a nice attraction, he said, but what brings people to Colorado Springs are Garden of the Gods and Cave of the Winds, larger attractions, heavily promoted, and for which the state has assisted with infrastructure.
Jennison continued the analogy. Kansas has lots of "wax museums," but hasn't developed the destination attractions that would increase tourism throughout the region.
The picture many people have of Kansas is one that might be taken looking east from Burlington, Colo. — flat country.
Kansas is a beautiful state, Jennison said, mentioning the Gyp Hills just south of Pratt, Wilson Lake, one of the clearest in the Midwest, internationally significant wetland areas of Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, fall foliage in the area between Clinton and Perry lakes that would rival any in the Northeast and some of the greatest parks in the country.
He also talked about the state's rich culture and heritage that has never been promoted.
An effort to bring a major resort to Clinton Lake, near Lawrence was not successful, Jennison said, in part because the only developer who submitted a proposal called for cabins with a central lodge, when the model envisioned by the state was a convention hotel. He hasn't given up on the idea of a resort in Kansas, however.
Tourism was added to the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks at the beginning of Gov. Sam Brownback's administration. The move was long overdue, Jennison believes. Tourism's staff of eight, formerly part of the Department of Commerce, now benefits from the entire KDWPT department of 400 people.
In his three years as secretary, Jennison and his staff have been looking at defining the state, and said "you cannot define Kansas without giving a big part to the outdoors."
As the state and the nation become more urbanized, people want to see scenery. Hunting and fishing bring in $600 million in revenue; add bird-watchers and the total comes to $900 million.
There are great opportunities in Kansas and in Pratt County if we have the courage to step forward and make a greater investment in promotion, Jennison concluded.